BEHIND EVERY PLOT IS THE HEARTBEAT OF A STORY – HOW DO WE DISCOVER OURS AND MAKE THE MOST OF IT?
A book pitch might sound like this –
– a woman comes home early from work to discover her husband is having an affair and decides to exact a cruel form of revenge…
– a dysfunctional family unite, determined to hunt for the careless driver who knocked down and killed their sister before driving away…
– old school friends are unknowingly being targeted, one by one, by the brother of a classmate they once bullied…
Any one of these stories would promise to be an exciting read, but as the writer, we have to ask ourselves what the story is really about behind the high concept. There are any number and variety of plotlines, any number of dramatic tensions, but behind every plot, chapter and scene, and in order to resonate successfully with readers, stories need to have one thing in common; a heartbeat pulsing at the centre of the narrative. The heartbeat is what our books, our stories are really about, often buried beneath layers of action, characters and dialogue.
To pinpoint this, writers need to drill behind the action scenes of the story, peel back fictional character layers, and go deeper again, this time to discover something about ourselves by asking a few questions; what is driving us to write this particular book? What’s behind the story and characters that have drawn us towards them, inciting enough of our passion and enthusiasm to undertake the long and winding sometime perilous, very often lonely slog from Chapter One, right up to to a finished draft of 100k words? What sparked the idea in the first place? Taking the book pitches above as examples, we might ask ourselves why we feel the need deep down inside to write about a spurned wife, or a dysfunctional family uniting, or the consequences of being bullied. There are lots of story ideas floating around the cosmos, coming at us from our friends and family, from social media, our newspapers, and our television screens. There has to be a reason, unique to ourselves, why a particular story idea forms an impression, fleeting or otherwise, and takes root long enough for us to decide it is worthy and big enough for a book. Our job as a writer is to find this reason, because this is the heartbeat of our story.
Many writers will say that a lot of the work takes place away from the laptop. Sometimes ideas can percolate and plot lines gel while we’re taking a long walk or doing some housework. Repetitive action of some kind has been proven to help with the creative process. Switching off for a while, listening to music, reading other books can also help. But in drilling down behind the layers, a lot of the work has to take place on ourselves, our innermost hopes, fears and motivations. It is this honest uniqueness, springing from within us, seeping into our writing, which forms the heartbeat of our novels.
In order to get fully get into the emotions driving our characters, we have to understand our own first. It is worth taking note of our answers to the above questions and expanding on them, digging deeper again, delving down to the next layer. We don’t need to have been the spurned wife, part of the dysfunctional family, the bullied or the bully to write about those situations, but in identifying the reason we want to write about them and mining our feelings attached to this, be they particular regrets, anxieties or outpourings of joy, using them as a guide will help to build the action of our plot, be the bedrock of our narrative, and crucially, help us to be more character-aware so that we can produce an honest and empathetic portrayal of them.
In The Perfect Sister, my latest book, the plot revolves around the demolition of an apartment block and the discovery of something that causes the police to re-open a file on an accidental death case. Behind this plot, the heartbeat of the novel concerns two sisters coming to terms with themselves and their rivalries, following a dysfunctional childhood. I’m glad to say I had a happy childhood, and my lovely sister and I harbour no rivalries towards each other, but I delved into other areas of my life experiences and used those as ‘transferable emotions’ so to speak, when it came to fleshing out my characters and their storylines.
I’ll leave the last words to American novelist, Richard Ford: ‘Find what causes a commotion in your heart. Find a way to write about that’.
(c) Zoë Miller
Author photograph (c) Kevin Morris photography
About The Perfect Sister:
Once inseparable, years of resentment and jealousy have driven Alice and Holly apart. But, though they barely speak these days, Alice knows her sister is hiding something.
When she hears that a discovery at a soon-to-be-demolished apartment building has led police to re-open an ‘accidental death’ case, Alice thinks nothing of it. She’s distracted by a recent chance encounter with a charismatic man named Damien, and the possibility of romance when she had given up all hope. Until someone knocks at her door, with questions about Holly.
Alice doesn’t believe her sister is capable of involvement in anything so sinister. But when she tries to contact Holly, she can’t be reached…
Forced to dig through the past in order to uncover the truth, Alice starts to uncover years of Holly’s secrets – and to doubt her innocence. As the evidence mounts up, Alice has a choice to make: does she want to help her sister clear her name, even if the price is her own future with Damien?
Order your copy online here.