Finding the Heart of Your Story

When I’m thinking about trying to locate the heart of my story, I think of it as a “nugget.” I use this term all the time, but now that I’m stopping to think about it, I guess it’s a metaphor about digging for gold–which seems pretty apt. But “prospecting” actually gets closer. And it’s not about digging a hole, but the pile of earth you’re creating beside the hole. Now I’m taking the metaphor too far.

The point is that once you’ve got a nice long draft, you’re going to see that most of it isn’t very good. Some of it will be awful. That’s fine. No one’s going to see those parts. But as you get better at drafting, at least some of it WILL be good. And one of the benefits of working with such a compressed form like digital stories is that you don’t need a lot of amazing material. Just enough. And then you can work on making that part really good.

If you can’t identify the nugget, at least for yourself, it’s going to be almost impossible to tell a compelling story. The nugget is what you build the rest of your story around.

Finding the nugget in your draft might be the most challenging part of the whole process. You have to ask yourself what your story’s about. It doesn’t matter what you thought your story was about when you started your draft. Seriously. That doesn’t matter at all. There are a lot of ways to try to find out what your story’s really about. Part of it depends on the sort of story you want to tell, what your purpose is for creating the story, and who you understand your audience to be.

I think the best way to starting thinking about what’s at the heart of your story is to ask yourself some questions. Maybe start with this one: What am I trying to reconcile by telling this story? I don’t think it’s all that helpful to ask what you learned in the story. Or what the takeaway should be from the story. I think those sorts of questions are more about the last effect of your story. But the extent to which an effect actually lasts with your audience or even with yourself is directly proportional to the precision with which you develop what’s at stake in the story. What is the narrator (you) trying to accomplish within the events of the story? What are you trying to achieve by telling it? Usually, it’s about wanting something. An answer to a question. Or forgiveness. Or peace. Or to make sense of something you NEED to understand.

If you can’t identify the nugget, at least for yourself, it’s going to be almost impossible to tell a compelling story. The nugget is what you build the rest of your story around. The first sentence of your eventual script is going to have to be a running start toward that nugget. The only way you will know how to end your story by knowing when you’ve reconciled what’s been at stake right from the first sentence. The only way to know which details are essential to your characters or the scene is to understand their relationship to the heart of the story. The same goes for which events, actions, and scenes you end up keeping. The nugget becomes the stake in the ground around which all the other elements of your story circulate.

Have you ever worked on a story where you thought it was about one thing, but it turn out to be about something else entirely? 

1 thought on “Finding the Heart of Your Story

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *