Heart: The Secret Ingredient

Confession time: I have a couple of movies that are “guilty pleasures” and The Replacements with Keanu Reeves is one of them. You know the story: major-league athletes go on strike and are replaced with “scab” players. Scabs are on the brink of success when big-name QB (or whatever position) returns. Big-Name QB mistreats scabs. Nobody replacement QB comes back and leads team to victory. And he gets the girl.

I know, I know. But I’ll stop and watch it almost every time.

Anyway, losing at halftime, Gene Hackman (the coach) is asked by a reporter as he strides to the locker room, “What will it take for the team to win?”

His reply (as he beats his chest with a rolled up paper)? “Heart.” Which is what he told the No-Name Replacement QB he had.

Recently, I saw a post from a friend on Facebook that she’d lost her joy in writing. And she could trace this loss to the moment she worried more about writing something “marketable” than the story she was passionate about. I told her the heck with marketing. If she wasn’t passionate about her story, well, how could she expect a reader to be?

On Monday, Pam wrote about authors losing that passion and, when they lose it, the stories are flat.

This is important to remember. Yes, writers need plots. They need structure. They need good dialogue.

Most of all, they need passion. They need heart.

That’s the real secret ingredient. That’s the thing that keeps readers coming back. When the page drips with the love and feeling that an author has, especially for her characters, that’s the story that will connect. It’s not the clever red herrings, or plot twists. Not the quippy dialogue.

You don’t have to be writing the next great literary novel to have heart. You don’t have to be exploring the human condition. Although, I’d argue, all fiction explores the human condition to some degree. But you have to be passionate about the story you’re telling. Cozy mystery, police-procedural, fantasy, romance, whatever. Be passionate and it’ll show.

Now, this doesn’t mean that we authors don’t do some pretty mean things to the characters we love. I changed up the ending to the manuscript of Every Other Monday is Murder. The ending is decidedly bittersweet. I kind of left my protagonist and his love-interest in a sticky place. It was a difficult ending to write because I want these people to be happy.

An editor who read it said, “Perfect. It was the absolute right ending.”

Having heart, passion, doesn’t mean everything turns out perfectly. It means you care. And you care enough to go to the hard places, make the difficult choices. You hurt because you care – and that increases the odds that the reader will, too.

It’s something I’m trying to remember as I look at my writing schedule for 2015. Some days, I just can’t feel a particular story. The wrong thing is to write it because I have a work schedule. The schedule is flexible – because it’s mine (so far – I realize this isn’t true for writers with traditional publishing contracts). The right thing is to step back. Work on another project, one where I can feel the passion. That feeling will come for the first project eventually. And if it doesn’t, why am I writing it in the first place?

So if you’re a writer, and you’re struggling in the winter writing doldrums, asking yourself how you can turn it around, take a word of advice from Gene Hackman.

To win, it’ll take heart.

Mary Sutton | @mary_sutton73


Author: Liz Milliron

Liz Milliron has been making up stories, and creating her own endings for other people's stories, for as long as she can remember. She survived growing up through reading, cutting her mystery teeth on Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark and, of course, Nancy Drew. As an adult, she finds escape from the world of software documentation through creating her own fictional murder and mayhem. She lives near Pittsburgh with her husband and two teenage children, and fantasizes about owning a dog again - one of these days.

10 thoughts on “Heart: The Secret Ingredient”

  1. My reader self wants to know that the author puts some part of his/her own heart into a story I’m reading. My writer self knows that, often, parts of our selves eek into our writing, even if we write about characters polar opposite of our selves. It is sensible to think of marketing, but we don’t want to be TOO sensible, do we? Nice, thoughtful post, Mary.


  2. I couldn’t agree more. Trying to second guess the latest trend or write a formula piece isn’t worth the long hours of effort it takes to write a novel.


  3. Absolutely! Great post. Though I do love quippy dialogue and memorable lines, too, which I think can contribute to the “heart-i-ness.” Like: Keanu saying, “Pain heals. Chicks dig scars. Glory lasts forever.” 🙂


  4. You mention Keanu Reeves in the first line of your post? My kind of woman. I love that movie too!

    Sometimes we fall more in love with one set of characters than another and I think it shows to the reader. We want them to succeed, but we know we can’t make it easy for them. And as for bittersweet endings, I always think that there’s a story that continues even after the pages are done being turned.


  5. Ramona, yes. Someone asked me once if part of me was in my villain, and I had to say “yes.” Okay, magnified – I’d never do those things, but I think you’re right – a part of ourselves leaks into the writing of whatever character we have.

    As for marketing, I think my friend had fallen victim to the “I want to tell this story, but it won’t sell” thinking. And yes, you have to consider marketing but you can’t chase trends. That way lies disaster. It’s like when I see an agent or press say, “We’re looking for a paranormal cozy” – I don’t write that, I have no passion for that, and it would be a mistake for me to do it because that lack of passion would show. I’m sure someone else would do it better.

    Cynthia – I love quippy dialogue, too. But it has to come from a character I love. Otherwise, it’s just not as funny. At least not to me. That is another great line.

    Diane – people diss Keanu all the time, but he can be endearing. And yes, the story always continues – especially if the story on the page is told with that passion.


  6. I love that movie, and just watched it last weekend! Love this post, Mary. Quippy dialogue is fun, but without the heart–it’s just quippy dialogue. And I can see, as someone who would LOVE to make a living writing, falling into the trap of trying to write to the trends, but I don’t think that’s sustainable. More importantly, it sounds so darn arduous. Definitely a passion-killer.


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