Writing the Heart of Your Story

I want to write books that entertain people but also make them think about deeper issues, and I want people to feel some resonance with the characters and the world of the book.

heart shapped book But touching the heart of the reader can be a challenge. Today, guest blogger C. S. Lakin gives us an insight into how writers can tap into their own emotions to deliver passion to their readers.

What would you say was the difference between a good book and a great one?

Between a forgettable novel and a classic that lingers long in your memory, maybe even for years? Between a book with a title and plot you’ve forgotten mere days after you read it and one with lines that haunt you for years, and characters that seem so real you find yourself thinking about them over a lifetime and wondering what they would say or do in a given situation?

Some good books provide an entertaining read, much like a good meal will satisfy. But then there are those other books.

You know the ones I mean. Those are the ones you hope you’ll find as you look for something significant to read, the ones you earnestly search for as if seeking a precious gem, with the desperate hopefulness of a miner panning for gold, day in and out, waiting for the big strike. A book with that kind of magic—that resonates with our heart and somehow fulfills a need in our soul—that is the mother lode. Books like that are more than just a good, or even great, read. They speak to us on some integral, deep level and nourish us. They speak to our heart.

If your greatest desire as a novelist is to reach and affect a reader’s heart in a significant way, to “strike home” with some theme, message, or emotional resonance, you have to tap into your own heart and explore why you are writing the story you’ve chosen to tell. 

How to target the heart

So, as a writer, how do you do that—target the heart of a story? Is there some secret, or a trick to it?

Do those “great” writers who write timeless, unforgettable books use some arcane method or formula that no one knows about?

Nope. But I would venture to say they have a drive or need to do more than put a bunch of interesting words on a page—or appeal to the masses in order to sell a certain number of copies. They not only have a story to tell, they want to tell it passionately. They have a story with heart, that will appeal to the heart, and they delve into their own hearts to tell it.

Ah . . . there’s the key—being brave, daring, and vulnerable enough to get into the deep, scary feelings that are stored in the heart.

For, if writers do not go deep, their writing won’t either.

If their writing doesn’t drag them long into late-night hours with grabbing intensity, it won’t keep anyone else up reading either. If their writing doesn’t possess them and draw life from them in order to come alive, the story will be flat, and maybe even feel dead. Lifeless. Boring.

Sometimes you have to mine deep into the caverns of your heart before you find what you are looking for. And it may take some time. Each story you mine will be different, and will require a new journey on perhaps unmapped trails and dimly lit tunnels.

The road that few writers take

Think of this excursion as a holistic endeavor—a joining of mind and heart. For many writers, constructing a novel is mostly a “mind” exercise. Some check their emotions, personal feelings, and experiences at their office door and dive into writing with full-throttle brain power. Even so doing, a person can learn to write well enough [read: technique, craft] to evoke particular emotions and reactions in a reader, and thus be successful in producing a very strong novel that may get acclaim.

But as G. K. Chesterton so aptly noted, “There is a road from the eye to the heart that does not go through the intellect.”

That’s the less-traveled road is the one we want to explore if we want to reach readers’ hearts.

That road takes you to a deeper level than you can reach with your intellect, and if you’ve ever had a moment when you’ve written a mind-blowing sentence or paragraph, or you’ve found tears streaming down your face as you reread a passage you just wrote (okay, maybe you too are thinking about that scene in Romancing the Stone, in which romance writer Joan Wilder is reading the end of her novel and weeping away), you know there is that special place a writer can get to, a Shangri-la or nirvana where magic happens. Where you reach the heart, and it’s pumping wild and strong.

For some of us writers, that’s the place we aim to get to every time we sit down to write.

That’s the runner’s high, or the climber’s euphoria. No, we aren’t striving to get there to grab a temporary thrill that will fade after a few hours. We strive to get to that place because it’s the most genuine, truthful, barest center of our existence.

So take the time to ask yourself these questions, and let the answers be the impetus to telling your story:

  • What passion inspires me to tell this particular story?
  • What idea or “message” do I long to get across to my readers in this book?
  • What would I say is the enduring theme of this story, and how do I feel about this topic?
  • What scene or element in my story gets me excited? Why?
  • What would my main character die for?
  • Who will be uplifted by this story and why?

Once you have clear answers to these questions, let those answers inspire and guide you as you write your novel.

Make sure each scene you construct is influenced by these answers and points to the heart of your story. And don’t be afraid to explore your deep feelings that bubble up as you write about things you are passionate about. If you do all these things, you just might write a story that expresses the deepest passions of your own heart—and reaches the heart of your readers.

Do you have any recommendations for writing to touch the emotions of your readers? Please do leave a comment below.

cs lakinC. S. Lakin is the author of thirteen novels, including the seven-book fantasy series “The Gates of Heaven.” She also writes contemporary psychological mysteries, including her Zondervan contest winner Someone to Blame. She works as a professional copyeditor and writing coach and loves to teach the craft of writing. Her websites are dedicated to critiquing fiction and building community to help survive and thrive in your writing life: www.LiveWriteThrive.com and www.CritiqueMyManuscript.com. Come join in! You can read more about her and her books at www.cslakin.com.

Follow @cslakin and @livewritethrive. Facebook: C. S. Lakin, Author, Editor.


Top image: Heart shaped book from Bigstockphoto.com


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  1. says

    Great topic. Love writing with passion. I think a writer has to fall in love with their book and write it because they’re interested in seeing how the story plays out just like the reader :)

    Thanks Joanna and C.S

  2. says

    Absolutely Agree! If you haven’t felt the emotions you want your reader to feel, they will clearly know. They key is knowing your own heart and that of your target reader.

    Ver well written advice, thank you.

  3. says

    I love the list of questions. Actually, some of those I applied to my thesis because my heart for the project kept me going. I never thought to actually apply them to my fiction. I think it’s high time I did, especially for taking on my post-NaNo project.

  4. says

    I absolutely agree with this -and – as Heather says above – the list of questions sums it up very nicely. You can’t force a story – it has to come from the heart. For my children’s books it’s always been a single moment or event that has triggered a feeling that in turn leads to the story. And when that moment or event happens I know it will lead to bigger things. It’s a long and tough journey getting there – and always driven by passion… Without that I’d never make it!

  5. says

    Thanks for all the great comments. I started writing this year-long course on my blog because as a copyeditor I so often see books lacking heart and because of that, they just aren’t compelling. For me, I write novels because of an idea I get passionate about, and that idea grows with themes that resonate with me. I know not all writers write like that, and I don’t expect them to. However, for those writers who really want to reach a reader’s heart, they really do have to understand their own motivations and the things they are passionate about.
    I have compiled the year-long course in a book I’m trying to sell right now (but will self-publish if I am unable to do that). There really isn’t a writing craft book available that focuses directly on this approach to writing (and this can apply to nonfiction writing as well as fiction, I feel). But if you are interested in delving more into getting to the heart of your story, just go to my blog at http://www.livewritethrive.com and read through the posts beginning in January 2012 in the category Writing the Heart of Your Story. I hope you will learn some great things on how to do this, one step at a time.
    Thanks, Joanna, for having me here!

  6. LKWatts says

    Hi Susanne,

    I believe to really touch the heart of someone you have to draw upon your own life experiences. If something has happened to you and it deeply affected you, chances are it will have happened to someone else. So when you write about that event it will resonate with other people.

    • says

      That’s the passion you want to bring to every story you write. Even in my fantasy books I draw from my heart and sometimes the silliest scenes with talking pigs, for example, will make me (and readers) cry.

  7. Hala Nobani says

    I agree with you there is a special place a writer can get to, a Shangri-la or nirvana where magic happens.And as much as you can stay in that place as much as your heart will know all the answers without even thinking of them. And if you write your story while you are in that place magic will happen.You will feel that the universe is talking through you. And you will be surprised and ask your self for a long time (from where did I get that idea).
    But how to reach the nirvana stage and how to stay there? is the question.
    Meditation , spirituality,helps. When I want to get to that place quicker I search for nature pics or babies faces or listen to music that I know from previous experience it will help me. But I always feel that a strong relation with the creator is the answer.

  8. michelle Knight says

    hello Mam!
    I appreciate so much of your input about writings, reading your guidelines is a start for me,
    because i have many thoughts that is not yet on paper. I guess its because I am not sure yet on how to
    project my self in writings, i have negatives and positives in writings. but all I know is I have inspiration in my heart to write and that is the good thing and the positive part of it. but at the same time when you are growing up internationally half in passed in Philippines and almost half part presence and maybe future here in US.that’ grammar and spelling is is my concern what figure will be the result of my story to be, but i know i like to write a story that is like your perspective a story with a heart to reach the dipper part of a readers. i have the materials, but I don’t know if I have the confident to go that far. which is why i am looking for someone maybe to write the materials to what i have, then maybe then i have that confident burst it out everything I have…but anyway thanks for your tips in writing but not just in writing but also in reading. thanks!


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