I read a lot of writing books. This is one of the best I’ve ever read.
I’ve long been a big fan of C.S. Lakin’s website, Live Write Thrive. So when a deal came along for the Kindle edition of Writing the Heart of Your Story: The Secret to Crafting an Unforgettable Novel, I ordered it.
The books we remember years after we finish the last page are the ones that connect with us on an emotional level. Lakin’s book takes us on a journey to discover what’s at the heart of the story we’re writing, and how to make that heart connection with the reader.
The thirty chapters of the book are divided into five sections, defining heart, and explaining how to heighten it in your characterization, plot and theme, scenes, and more.
Lakin encourages writers to put a lot of thought into the very first page of the novel. She’s devised a checklist of 13 items that should appear on page one. The list turns some common writing advice upside down, but will compel the reader to turn to page two. “Think about the emotion, feeling, or sensation you want to evoke in your reader…establishing immediately…the drives, desires, needs, fears, frustrations of your protagonist. Not only do you need to show her in conflict…you also need to reveal her heart, hint at her spiritual need, show her vulnerability, and what obstacles are standing in her way. In the first scene? Oh yes.”
Lakin is a plotter rather than a pantser, but she plots strategically, planning how she will impact the reader before she even starts her manuscript. She tells us to RUE: resist the urge to explain. She challenges writers to take out all but maybe three short sentences of backstory.
Lakin also sends us to our bookshelves to reread our favorite books and analyze them for the elements she presents. There we find proof her strategies work.
She shares hints she’s gleaned from other writing books that help writers identify elements of heart. For example, she recommends Elizabeth George’s practice of free writing about her characters. “Call it muse or divine inspiration, but freewriting, like journaling, can draw from a deep well of experience and emotion. Things float to the surface of the mind when you do this, and I will guarantee that some of your best ideas for your character will come through this exercise. You are delving into the mystery of your character, and this exercise will bring out their secrets.” (I can’t wait to try that idea!)
I love the questions Lakin raises in Chapter 19 for building conflict and complications:
What’s the problem about? How can I make it bigger? If I take my protagonist out of the story, what does that problem look like in universal terms?
How can I make this problem the protagonist has harder? How can I make things worse in the outer world and in his personal life?
How can I make the effects of this problem worse for other people as well? How can I broaden the scope of this problem so it affects a greater scope?
What does this problem push people to do that they wouldn’t normally do? How can I blow that up bigger and make them do worse things?
How can I make it harder for my protagonist to solve this problem? How can I raise the stakes so more is at risk? If I have just one thing at risk, what other things can I add and put at risk?
Lakin gives special consideration to the setting of each scene:
Where is the best place I can put my character to have this scene unfold and lead to the important moment revealed in this scene? Rather than pick something off the top of your head, which is what a lot of writers do in their rush to put a scene down, you will find that if you deliberately and judiciously choose a setting that will best serve the interests of your plot and your character’s need for that scene, you will have a much more powerful novel.
While reading Writing the Heart of Your Story, I found myself running to the computer to rewrite sections of my work-in-progress.
I’m currently reading Lakin’s novel Intended for Harm. It’s interesting to see how she uses her strategies in her own work.
Writing the Heart of Your Story is a book I intend to reread often—whenever I start writing a new novel and whenever I start editing it.