Four Techniques to Get at the Emotional Heart of Your Story

I am in various composition stages on one-two-three different editorial letters right now . . . so of course I'm going to procrastinate and write a blog post. But these are some of the models I'm using to figure out the hearts of these manuscripts -- the core character change (aka Emotional Plot) that needs to occur -- and then to think through the Action Plot that overlies them to see where we may need to add events or motivation or subtract unnecessary story elements.

1. Conflict, Mystery, Lack. I go on about this at length in various talks over on my site, so I won't spend much time on it here, but simply: Which model is your central plot and each of your subplots? Are all the narrative requirements of those plots set up at the beginning (e.g. a clear antagonist, a defined mystery, a hole of some kind), developed through the middle (escalating antagonism, clues, the filling of the hole), and satisfactory at the end (a clear victory for one side and/or reconciliation, an answer to the mystery, emotional wholeness at last)?

2. What Does the Character Want? (I admit I sometimes append "Dammit" to this.) Not all plots have or should have a character with a big goal, taking action to get it. . . . The best novels are like life, and often we don't know what we want in life and have to figure it out, and the dramatization of that figuring-it-out can be fun and fascinating if the people are real enough in it. (Case in point: The Treasure Map of Boys by E. Lockhart, which I read in one long, enjoyable trip around New York yesterday.) But if your plot does allow your character to want a specific thing from the beginning, and readers know what that thing is, boy, that makes the dynamics of the action so much easier and the character instantly attractive to readers, and gives you a strong narrative spine on which to hang all sorts of other subplots.

3. Compulsion vs. Obstacles. A formula I first heard from Laurie Halse Anderson:
  • What action or emotional pattern is the character compelled to repeat over and over?
  • What obstacles will keep him/her from doing it this time, and/or will force him/her to change this pattern? That is your frontstory.
  • What personality or life circumstances have formed him/her that way? That is your backstory.
4. Problem, Process, Solution. I talk about this as a picture-book-story technique in "Words, Wisdom, Art, and Heart," but it's proving enormously useful for novels as well -- basically "Compulsion vs. Obstacles" once the ending has been defined, which helps to identify the steps that actually make a difference in getting to the Solution. Those steps are the Process, and there ought to be at least one of those steps, in some form, in every chapter.

And three rules of thumb:

A novel ought to be at least 75 percent Process. Once the Problem is defined, it's time to start solving it. Don't spend valuable narrative time rehashing it, or too much time celebrating or talking about the Solution once it's been reached. (I love Emma, but the scene where Mr. Knightley reads Frank Churchill's letter and apostrophizes upon his faults drives me crazy -- a rare authorial slip in an otherwise perfect plot. I can only imagine that Jane Austen, too, adored Mr. Knightley so much that she indulged him in this fit of moralizing for the pleasure of spending more time with him.)

The main character ought to drive at least half of that Process.
Either through mistakes or conscious action, and whether he or she knows it or not.

Every scene has to have a point, which is often an emotional point.
This is the moment where someone finally says the thing they've been meaning to say, or misses the moment where they ought to say it, or does something else that makes a difference in the action or the characters' relationships. Often writers will either cut scenes off before this point is reached or just let scenes lollygag on and on without getting to this point . . . at which point the scenes are ripe for the "Justify Your Existence" test, and in danger of getting cut or combined with another scene if they flunk.

Back to my ms.; good luck with yours.