Finding the Heart of the Matter

Writing is an adventure. It’s full of challenges and pitfalls, rewards and revelations. This month we’ve talked about heart as the magic ingredient in creating a novel that stands out, heart as the soul of the work, and our writer’s heart as the secret ingredient. We’ve explored so many aspects of how heart is crucial to creating a complete story. But, how do you find the heart of the story itself?

I’ve always struggled with the concept of theme. As a middle and high school student, and even later in college and graduate school, grasping a single, main theme felt rather like juggling jello. Every time I thought I understood, the conclusion I’d drawn shifted and became, well, jello-like again. But, when I think about a story from a different perspective, not worrying so much about the rules and the logic that we all learned in school, I’m free to look for the heart.

The heart of the story is that thing–a scene, a character–without which the story simply wouldn’t be the same. Think of your favorite novel, and then think about the first scene or character that comes to mind. Would you love the story as much without that scene? Without that character? If not, then you’ve probably found the heart.

As a writer, I write my way into and out of my stories. (That means that I write a lot of garbage that gets cut!) I keep writing until I finally achieve that one scene where I sit back and say, “Now I know what I’m writing about!” It’s fun when it happens, exciting and invigorating, and I just don’t want to stop writing. I think of it as my writer’s version of the runner’s high; you know this magical thing is out there, you just have to keep pace and eventually you’ll experience it.

I’m sure there are much more efficient ways to find the heart, and I bet there are even writers who know before they begin writing (gasp!) what the heart of their work will be; maybe the first scene they draft in their heads is the heart around which the whole story is based. My initial story idea tends to change, evolve, and morph into something much different, and the final story idea rarely resembles the original. But that’s okay, it’s kind of fun to fall in love with my stories slowly. Finding the heart is a journey, and I love each trip.


Author: Pamela A. Oberg

Pamela is a portfolio manager at an educational assessment company by day, writer by night. Founder of Writers on Words (a discussion and critique group), Pamela enjoys spinning tales of murder and mayhem, with an occasional foray into the world of the paranormal.

10 thoughts on “Finding the Heart of the Matter”

  1. Pam, I have trouble identifying theme easily as well. Some of the writing teachers I’ve studied with think it’s important to know, so you can tweak your story to show the positive, negative, and negation of that theme through different characters. Perhaps I’m too close to it?


  2. Pamela, so true. I’m most definitely not one of those people who know the theme or the “heart” before I start. It usually takes three or four drafts until I have that “ah-ha!” moment.


  3. I heard a publicist give a talk about how to create interest in your book, and she said it’s not about the general topic (Ex from Mad for Mod: midcentury modern interior decorator who has modeled her life after Doris Day), it’s about the core theme (ex: 47-year old woman who has isolated herself after a destructive breakup). People will enjoy the “hook” (Doris Day), but the theme transcends that. Who hasn’t had a bad breakup and sworn off relationships?

    Would love to hear the rest of you give examples too!


  4. Diane, sounds right to me:

    Middle grade: 8th grade girl learns who she is and how to stand her ground against social pressure

    Current WIP: Detective with PTSD puts his life back together after tragedy and learns to live with the man he’s become.

    Hmm, Laurel Highlands: Divorced copy learns there’s more to life than the dog and the job? That one feels a bit weak.


  5. I worry away at each novel until there is heart–a theme that can be threaded throughout. In my current WIP the theme is committment to family, which is an unusual one given that the action is all about murder, money laundering, and the drug war in Mexico! But the theme helps to show the lives of the people behind the action, which is where the heart is.


  6. Like you, Carmen, mine boils down to family too. We can say our stories are about this and that and the other thing, but what it really boils down to is its heart.


  7. What an excellent way to describe that ah ha moment. I usually do have a theme, but it does morph and change as the story develops. Thank you for the glimpse into your writing process.


  8. Great comments everyone! I love knowing I’m not alone in having to discover the theme of my own work. 🙂 Diane, I am thinking on the publicist’s advice and your example–love it, and can see how that’s a helpful perspective.


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