The Heart of Your Story: What Is It, Where Is It, and How Do You Get There?

The Heart of a Story: What Is It, Where Is It, and How Do You Get There?

Scan the Table of Contents in most writing manuals and you’ll see the familiar menu of story mechanics. All good! Setting, characters, plot points and pillars, crisis, climax and resolution—without these ingredients we probably don’t have a fully-cooked story. But one essential is almost always missing—the heart of a story.

Where is the heart of a story? What is it? And why is it so often ignored? Does it even exist?

Does the story heart exist? Don’t get me started. Ah! It’s too late! I’m off and running to defend the heart! Are you with me?

Does the Heart of a Story Even Exist?

Would fiction have become our obsession if it had no heart? Would stories ring true? If not for the heart of a story, how would readers get their money’s worth? Why would we even read fiction? Would we bother to write it?

Does the story heart exist? It exists, all right. Ask any protagonist sunk in the pits of despair. The plot has almost killed him. This dark interlude, painful though it is, is his only hope.

Oh, you mean the Third Plot Point?

Yes, that’s it. That’s the story heart, the hero’s dead end and subsequent change of heart.

But, while the story hinges on this scene, it’s a mistake to see it as something mechanical. For the protagonist caught in the heart of a story, nothing adds up, nothing makes sense. The heart doesn’t do logic, doesn’t do mechanics.

If This Is Story Structure, It’s Sacred Structure

I’ve spent years studying protagonists tormented at the heart of the story, and here’s what I’ve found—nothing works for them anymore. Conventional thinking has gotten them into this mess. There’s nothing more to think. They loathe their own thoughts. It’s a terrifying nothingness.

Now, are you ready for this? Listen to author John Gray:

This nothingness may be our most precious possession, since it opens to us the inexhaustible world that exists beyond ourselves.

Contemplatives from all religious traditions speak of insight flowing from loss at the heart of our own stories.

The Heart of a Story—What Is It?

The heart of a story is generally considered to be “what the story is about” at its deepest level. Down there, that’s where we discover the truth about our human condition. The best protagonists glimpse the ugly truth and see a way to rise above it–above themselves.

Most stories are about characters trying to achieve something. But at the heart of a story, the protagonist sees his goal in a larger context. He or she adopts a higher cause, which paves the way for the most satisfying resolution.

But it means leaving the old self behind. It happens all the time in fiction. It happens at the heart of the story. For example:

South of the Border, West of the Sun

Haruki Murakami describes his protagonist at the story heart as becoming “an empty shell.” The character narrates his passage through this fearful moment:

I could detect a … gradual sloughing off of something that had clung to me. Something inside me was severed, and disappeared. Silently. Forever.

I like authors who spell it out. The heart of the story, this is what it’s about!

South of the Border West of the Sun Haruki Murakami

Zorba the Greek

Zorba is frustrated with his uptight English friend who is far too logical. He says:

A person needs a little madness, or else they never dare cut the rope and be free.

At the heart of this wonderful story, when all is lost, the Englishman risks a little madness. He cuts the ties with his Englishness and becomes alive for the first time.

The way fiction depicts characters growing up, and perhaps it helps the reader to grow up as well.

Zorba the Greek Anthony Quinn

Boyhood

In the final scene, eighteen-year-old Mason finds a friend with whom he can trash conventional wisdom. They examine the popular saying, “Seize the day!” The truth is more like “existence seizes us.” It’s a more gentle and mature worldview, less self-centred. Mason has escaped childhood and with that his “boyhood” is officially over.

Boyhood Movie Ending

The Heart of a Story—Where Is It?

A story is actually two stories with a hole in the middle. It is two stories separated by an impossible chasm–which is its heart.

All the best stories have this hole into which protagonists are lured against their will, and from which no amount of thinking can help them escape. It’s “change or die,” but really the character “dies” first, which proves to be the essential factor in change.

Die first, then change follows. Like magic. I remember the day I saw the truth of it.

While studying the Oscar-winning movie, Moonstruck, I saw the protagonist Loretta trapped in that hole. The story comes to a halt while she “dies” to her old way of thinking. It was killing her. It was standing in the way of her true happiness. She sees the truth. Now she earns the moral authority to enter the Third Act. In the aftermath of a meltdown, Henry Miller said:

One’s destination is never a place but new way of seeing things.

Moonstruck Cher Nicolas Cage

This is a metanoia, a radical change of heart. It is the center of gravity in a good story. I try to keep that always in mind. On the wall beside my computer, a sign reads:

There’s a hole in my story and everything’s flowing into it!

That’s the heart of the story. That’s what it is and that’s where it lies.

The Heart of a Story—How Do We Get There?

Painfully. There’s no other way.

Story Structure Expedition Journey to the Heart of a Story PJ ReeceIn my new e-book Story Structure Expedition: Journey to the Heart of a Story (which is free on Amazon this Friday and Saturday–May 8-9), we head up a story river to see how much commitment and determination is required to travel that far.

The heart of a story is where our protagonists fail so utterly they turn away from themselves. On the brink of the heart, they reject belief systems that have long stood in opposition to their best interests. Now, for a few beats, there is only darkness.

But this heart of darkness is preferable to living more lies.

The question for writers is this: Can we love our protagonists this much? Can we love them all the way to the heart of the story, so they might glimpse the inexhaustible world that exists beyond themselves?

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How are you going to hound your heroes to that dark heart of your story? Tell me in the comments!

The Heart of Your Story: What Is It, Where Is It, and How Do You Get There?

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About PJ Reece | @pjreece

PJ Reece is a filmmaker-turned-writer who divides his time between Vancouver, Canada, and Mazatlán, Mexico. Over two decades writing for television, PJ published two novels and ghosted a memoir of escape from Iran. More recently he self-published the e-book, Story Structure Expedition: Journey to the Heart of a Story (free at Amazon for the next two days). Reece’s blog is a fresh look at how fiction really works.

Comments

  1. An apt post this one. It wasn’t until well into writing my current novel that I realised I hadn’t planned this important aspect of my MC’s character arc. Now that I’ve paid attention to it, I feel that the novel has gained momentum – especially through the ‘swampy middle’. So, many thanks for these insights.

    • Thanks for your comment, Tom. Just checked your website — Good luck “writing in starlight.” I might try that myself. Don’t most artists and poets see better in the dark? I’ve always wanted to trek around Cumbria. Might see you there one day soon.

  2. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, PJ!

    • Absolutely love the way the article looks on your site, Katie. And the tie-ins to your past posts are perfect. I didn’t realize it would be such a good fit. I hope it helps a few of your readers to give due respect to the heart of the story. ~ PJ

  3. Jayden says:

    In my story the protagonist endures a negative arc, where his ideals and beliefs ultimately lead to his downfall. This downfall in particular comes when tensions between the trio, formed through the conflict between the Protagonists mentor and his friend reaches fever pitch as they find the location to their final destination.

    To provide some context, the mentor saves the protagonists life at the beginning of the story and out of a sense of debt he accompanies him on his quest to find The Abyss, the gateway to God/Heaven that is rumored to exist on the planet (Set in a fantasy) and has captured the mind of millions over milennia. Some of the conflict stems from other groups/individuals trying to beat/find the Abyss before them, but the majority stems between the arguments and dissension among the group after a third individual joins them in their quest. The central conflict stems between the Protagonist trying to remain loyal to the man who saved his life and stop the group from falling apart whilst that very same man attacks his own ideas and attitudes and tries to influence him towards his own way of thinking.

    My major problem so far is trying to draw the line between being too far inside the protagonists head, alongside how to build to the confrontation which leads to the novels conclusion. The middle part of the story so far is by far the most frustrating and weak aspect overall as things stand at the moment.

    • Jayden… Sounds great! Not many writers dare to go right out and state the goal as ‘The Abyss.’ We are usually dragged there kicking and screaming against our will. Protagonists usually pursue more obvious and superficial goals, which turn out to be a misdirection, since they lead to a massive failure (abyss) that opens the door to ‘Heaven.’

      As for that looong middle you’re struggling with — I know, it’s probably the greatest weakness of most manuscripts. I look to the Oscar-winning film “The Artist” as an example of how it’s always possible to break the protagonist into ever smaller pieces of his former self. Always more ideals and beliefs to squelch. Good luck!

  4. This is a great description of the overarching why of a story. One of my favorite authors is Ted Dekker, and this post reminded me of how his characters typically face a moment of absolute hopelessness in which they’re forced to change and look outside themselves for a solution. Love the metaphor of theme as the hole everything else if falling into. Gives the story an underlying direction to head for.

    The story I’m working on right now has a father trying to get to his children half a world away in order to rescue them from someone trying to kill them. The character is selfish at the beginning, so I know the heart of my story will be the moment that forces him to look outside himself and live for the good of someone else.

    Loved the post, and I’m going to download the book now. Thanks.

    • Tom… Great comment, and sounds like a wonderful story. I’m partial, myself, to father-stories. I’ve written a few father-son dramas. You are dead on the money with your analysis of what happens at the heart. And remember that it’s not much of a breakthrough required. I remember the film “Desert Bloom” with John Voigt, who portrays a closed, mean, and nasty character, and whose tiny opening to others is enough to make audiences swoon. It doesn’t take much!

  5. Wonderful post and thanks for the free download of Story Structure Expedition. Just what I need to read these days! 🙂

    • Carol… I think you’ll like my SSXpedition. It’s more of an “entertainment” for writers than a “how-to” book. If you do like it, don’t hesitate to leave a review on Amazon. Those reviews help tremendously to give the book greater visibility on eBookshelf. Thank you.

  6. thomas h cullen says:

    To seek out the heart, one has to then turn reality inside out (Which means having to upset someone, or to destroy the something that they hold dear).

    If Avengers Age of Ultron comes out, and somebody asks, “Do you think you’ll see that?”, and then I reply “No, because to pay to see that movie is to validate the capitalist system everyone’s ruled by”, that’s to destroy..

    And, if everyone behaved this way, what indeed would then that mean for fiction – novels, movies, TV shows, books and stories in general?

    The heart, is that stories themselves don’t matter one iota.. It’s the routine of stories, that matter! It’s the usual part of the day, or it’s the usual weekend trip to the cinema, or the usual trailer release, or the usual visit to this site, or the usual question about going to see this movie, or buying this novel. These are the realities that matter!

    Is Croyan my life? Yes. Is Mariel? Yes. Will it be them, that I’m thinking of just before I become a corpse? Yes. Are they the heart of me? Yes.. Yet, despite those realities, do I believe that I can ever make them more to other people, than just parts of a routine? Despite these realities, do I believe that I can ever make other people change the heart of their very own lives, wanting to leave this reality with me, because of these two?

    I ask, because that’s the heart of The Representative.. to end the United States, to end the European Union, to end the United Nations, and to end the Middle East, achieving humanity’s final transcendence.

    • Thomas… Sounds like you’ve given this “heart” business a lot of thought. And of course the heart can mean so many different things to different people. The only constant should be the nature of the heart. Since the heart becomes available only when the head surrenders, and since the head is basically selfish and survivalist, then the heart is by definition “other-oriented.” The heart embraces always a larger worldview. In fact, the heart knows nothing of petty personal concerns. Unfortunately, societies tend to exist to glorify those petty concerns. Which is what makes drama so eternally compelling. The human condition is a house of cards. I think you get that.

  7. This was a great article, thanks. I have always thought that unless the protagonist grows and changes from the start to end of the story there was something missing.

    • Annay… Here’s a little theory of mine — we readers are actually nourished by these character changes — their radical changes of heart. And by nourished I don’t just mean entertained, I mean that something within us opens a crack, simultaneously. And if our own awakening consists of incremental little cracks, then we are actually growing up ourselves with each of these fictional transformations. What do you think of that? Is that why we read so much?

  8. What a great article.

    I’ve struggled with finding the heart of my stories forever. No matter how much I like the story, I’ve never been very clear on what the heart of it is; what the big picture is.

    This post is most helpful (not to mention the first) post I’ve ever seen on the topic. It gives me something to consider when I go back to look at those existing stories and when I move forward to new stories.

    Thanks!

    • Carrie… You’re right, not many writers are talking about the story heart. I approached Katie Weiland with this idea because I noticed that she is one of the very few who speak of what happens there. I think most people are loathe to discuss consciousness or anything to do with the idea of transcending our little selves. People think, ‘Oh, this must be some kind of mystical experience,’ and they’re right, but it’s oh so common. As I see it, the human condition is a set-up for going beyond it, and I think this fact underpins drama. Hey, this is a topic I could discuss all day and all night. I’ve been doing so on my blog for five years now.

  9. Is the book Free free, or only so for people with Kindle Unlimited?

    • Heidi… STORY STRUCTURE EXPEDITION is free free free as a Kindle download today. Right now the book is only available as an eBook, and Amazon is the only retailer. But you don’t have to be a Kindle Unlimited member. If you don’t have a Kindle device, you can download a free Kindle app for your computer. Good luck.

  10. Hi PJ! I love your concept of the story heart.
    I’ve been reflecting on the tendency many of us have to view things in straight lines, whether that be within the context of “life journeys” or in the various “seeking narratives” around creativity, self-fulfillment, happiness, etc… We may begrudgingly acknowledge a few twists and turns, but those are tolerated in the hopes of finding the ideal, singular, purposeful line.
    However, whether the story is fictional, mythical, spiritual, metaphysical, philosophical, emotional or personal, or any combination of these, it’s really more cyclical and, in our heart of hearts, I don’t think we’d want it any other way.
    The “dark night of the soul”, the Inner Station on the Congo, the phoenix rising from the ashes, the dove bearing the olive branch, … I could go on and on, citing accounts in all major religious texts and stories throughout literary history (never mind what we see every day in the natural world). It is in destruction that the seeds of creation are planted.
    And then the cycle begins again.

    • T.O.W… Sounds like you better start writing about this yourself. Take it the next mile. I’m glad to hear people now talking about the story heart. I’ll be interested to read your next piece of fiction. Thanks for your comment and please stay in touch.

  11. First: Thanks for the free e-book. You’re great.

    At third plot point, my child protagonist believes he exists solely as a shadow of his dead older brother — whose name he shares — until forcing mom to recognize him for himself.

    • Roy… that’s a great image/self-concept — as a shadow — you can’t get much more insubstantial than that. That’s just the kind of despair that shuts the door to the past and leaves one open to possibilities one hasn’t yet imagined. That’s called growing up. Well done!

  12. Catherine says:

    Hmm. At first glance, looking for the heart of my story, it looked like some freakish Gallifreyan wannabe with two. But no. The first is, I think, the true heart — the darkest night in which the seed of change is planted, when something dies and a very small something else finds new life. And then, a short time later, the evidence of that change comes to light.

    My protagonist’s life is a series of betrayals in the service of her dark master. It is in the deepest-hitting betrayal of all that she comes to a place of utter helplessness. Unable to continue her mission, barely able to resist betrayal of who she really is and the master she is still deeply loyal to, she is completely stuck, helpless to move one way or another. Disturbed and distressed by her own weakness and by the constant kindness of her intended victims. She’s bailed out by her partner-in-crime and dragged back to her master, utterly ashamed. I thought, “Oh, but she doesn’t actually change there. She’s still loyal to her master. She still accomplishes the betrayal.” But just because the change is not acknowledged outright by anyone doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It’s there, the breaking of a pride she didn’t even realize she had, and a resurrection of the compassion she’d long battled to kill within her own heart.

    …Compassion which is evidenced later as she begins to reverse the series of betrayals, turning them against her master. It was that first reverse betrayal that threw me off. It’s severely punished, which is a very dark time indeed for the protagonist. But that darkness doesn’t spark a new change — rather, it encourages the growth of the change already begun a scene or two earlier.

    (Pardon my rambling, but this was a good thing to think through.)

    • Catherine… I got the chills reading your analysis. I love the delayed reaction, if we can call it that… the planting of the seed in the story heart, and then the proof of its sprouting later. Of course, Act III is the proof that a radical change of heart has occurred. The climax is the final proof. But often a standard heroic climax isn’t even necessary. Lots of great stories end at the heart, leaving the reader to imagine the proof. For this reason, I am convinced that readers are more nourished by the heart of the story than the climax. Unless, of course, the climax is a good as, let’s say, the airport scene in Casablanca. But your story sounds like it’s got killer scenes to bring your story home. Great stuff!

  13. In one of my stories I have the protagonist in a journey of her own. She lost something valuable (people) and she needs to find them. That itself would bring out the heart of the character. The difference here is that she could literally have those valuables brought to her instantly, but chooses to find those on her own. She wants to prove to herself and her family she can be trusted on her own. Independence and adventure is at the heart of this character. From there, she tells her story. She tells me what direction she wants to go, from her heart.

    • Ellen… Does your character really act from her heart? Or is she still acting from desire, even if it seems like her aspirations are almost saintly? Saints don’t make great protagonists because they have already transcended the human condition. Even those people who we might mistake for saints, can still discover folly within their actions and thoughts. It seems there’s a never ending series of awakening every person needs to experience. So don’t be afraid to teach your protagonist one more cosmic lesson. Good luck!

  14. Laura Yackel says:

    This website has been so helpful to my writing process. It has caused me to re-evaluate many of my characters and look at things differently.
    I just got your book “Structuring Your Novel” from the library. I am so excited to start reading it. What you have done with your blog, books, and writing as a whole, is so inspiring.

    • Laura Yackel says:

      Nevermind, I thought K. M. Weiland write this one. Sorry.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m so glad you’ve found it useful! I hope you find Structuring Your Novel useful as well. Feel free to shoot me a note if you have any questions!

  15. yvettecarol says:

    How lovely to see you popping up everywhere across the ether, PJ. Nice to see your particular wisdom being liberally sprinkled around. Since the first time I heard your ideas about the transcendental story heart, I have warmed to them. I also realized, with horror, that until then I’d been falling just shy of pushing my characters far enough. I know I’ve mentioned this before, forgive me if I repeat myself, but I could see I’d been prodding my protagonist to the edge of the volcano’s crust and then failing to push him in. I was too afraid of ‘being mean’ to my own hero/ine! Of course, nowadays, I shove him in there!

    • Yvette… Shove ’em in! And drag them down. The human condition is such an opaque screen against Truth and Reality that in real life very few people are undone to the point of giving up on their b.s. Of course, some protagonists do see the light even at the brink. I guess it depends on how “enlightened” the character is to begin with. Some stories end at the brink and leave it to the reader to extrapolate to a resolution. So many different types of stories. And it’s good to see you here in the ether, too, Yvette.

  16. My character finds herself in a battle between good and evil. The race that hunts her people is constantly scene as the enemy, until she finds that it may have been her people that started this war to begin with. She chooses to set aside her hate and command a world of peace between both races. I believe her change from hatred of a race to wanting peace is the heart of the story.

    • Elizabeth… You’ve got it. I’ve been studying my reactions to stories for quite a few years, and I’ve discovered that whenever a character opens to another way of seeing the world, I get teary. It’s an escape to the only kind of freedom that matters — an escape from the conditioning that keeps us prisoner. And for most people that’s an all but impossible escape. To see someone break through — even in fiction — is to witness human evolution. We can transcend ourselves. If that isn’t the meaning of life, I don’t know what is. Good luck with your book!

  17. Yes, I don’t say as much in the article, but the heart of the story is a “transcendental” moment. It may not be trendy to speak of such things, but the fact is that fiction has been telling us since forever that the best protagonists “transcend” themselves as the key to resolving their issues. Otherwise, life just carries on in it’s old superficial narcissistic way. I hope that makes sense.

Trackbacks

  1. […] The Heart of a Story: What Is It, Where Is It, and How Do You Get There? (PJ Reece at K.M. Weiland’s blog) – Awesome article about finding the heart of your story!  And it also reminds us a little of why God lets us get the end of ourselves and despair at times, to teach us new things about Him.  “The question for writers is this: Can we love our protagonists this much? Can we love them all the way to the heart of the story, so they might glimpse the inexhaustible world that exists beyond themselves?” […]

  2. […] One reader must have become alarmed after reading it in my new article: THE HEART OF THE STORY: What Is it, Where Is it, and How Do We Get There? […]

  3. […] good story. Stuart Horwitz discusses how to plot and outline without a formula, P.J. Reece shows how to find the heart of your story, and Weifarer talks about using parallel chapters to perfect a […]

  4. […] The Heart of a Story: What Is It, Where Is It, and How Do You Get There? – P.J. Reece […]

  5. […] The Heart of a Story: What Is It, Where Is It, and How Do You Get There? – P.J. Reece […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.