The Heart of Your Story

I was asked to read a screenplay several years ago. It opened with two minutes during which it explained what a common household device was, showing how it was made in a factory. Then for three more minutes it had characters eating breakfast, talking about their cultural heritage. I began to wonder when the story would begin. For the next fifteen pages nothing happened, except that the father of the protagonist learned about a potential problem. But then he got killed on page 30, and the protagonist’s real problem hadn’t started yet. Instead she mourned for a while, and her problem started on page 60—an hour into the movie. Oy, that’s bad.

I see this on many of the short stories that I judge for Writers of the Future, too. I’ll get an opening hook that looks fine, but the author will spend the next five or ten pages without getting to a significant problem in the character’s life. Guess what? Your character’s biggest problem is the heart of your story. Until that heart starts beating, the story won’t budge. Oh, you can talk about your character’s past, wallow in his feelings, and describe gorgeous sunrises, but the story won’t really take off.

As new writers, we are often told that we should start a story “In medias res,” in the middle of things. But I suspect that many new writers have never studied literature enough to know what “In medias res” really means. It means that we don’t start a tale at the beginning—introducing a protagonist and his minor daily problems—but that we start at a point when the story takes on larger dimensions, when the protagonist’s conflicts are about to become significant, or monumental, in the way that Homer started out his tale of Odysseus, allowing us to begin with a significant conflict first, then supplying background information as needed through flashbacks.

In other words, get to the heart of your story quickly. Until that heart is brought to life and begins beating, the story itself cannot move.

My old mentor Algis Budrys used to have a rule with short fiction. He said that if he didn’t know who the main character was, where the story was set, and what the main conflict was by page 2, the author had failed. He was right. I have to reject a lot of pretty darned good stories simply because the author didn’t get to the heart of the matter quickly enough.


Last chance to register for my Writer’s Peak workshop in Provo, Utah. We will be closing it soon. The workshop will be taking place this Friday and Saturday. If you want to come, learn more and register here.

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