The emotional core of a story is the universal human experience.
It’s also what readers and audiences remember long after they finished a book, TV series, or film.
When I was first writing and re-writing the Nash Moor story many moons ago, I neglected the emotional core. I focused too much on the procedural elements and not enough on the emotional connection between the reader and my characters. Instinctively, I knew a story should be driven by characters and their emotions, but I didn’t believe it. This was largely due to my fear of being vulnerable (which I try to work out in other ways), or possibly my commitment to the stereotypes of the neo-noir genre.
Like most of My Realizations About What I’ve Been Doing Wrong and How to Create Better Things, a quotation changed all that:
“Yeah, but when fiction works for me it works on an emotional level first and an intellectual level second.”
— Stephen King (The Atlantic)
It’s not rocket science, but it addressed a part of me that I’d been suppressing for a long time. The quotation made total sense when I looked at all my favourite books, TV shows, and films. I loved those stories because they all had nice, bleeding, still-alive emotional cores. I related to them emotionally first and foremost, and when I thought about them years later, it was not the plot twists or cool villains but the emotional elements that popped to mind first.
After I found out what my Long-Suffering Manuscript was missing, I worked backwards. In order to understand how to properly write the emotional core, I needed to understand why I liked what I liked. And this led to:
The 3 Steps (Hint: It’s All About Relationships)
To find the emotional core of any narrative, you simply look at the main relationship of the story and reverse engineer the relationship. The rationale behind this is that the main relationship of the story usually parallels the central plot in some way (Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard), or is responsible for the central plot (The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling). And, of course, a relationship involves people, so there would be plenty of motivations, emotional baggage, and trigger-happy unpredictability for you to sink your teeth into.
Once you identify the main relationship and the parties involved, you simply answer:
- Why does the relationship exist?
- What are the conflicts in this relationship?
- What happens to the relationship at the end?
For an example of these steps at work, see the part of the video where I break down Rum Punch/Jackie Brown’s emotional core using the 3 Steps.
Find Your Own Story’s Emotional Core
To find your own story’s emotional core, dig deep inside yourself to see what resonated with you in both life and fiction. Then ask yourself the following:
- What life experiences (good or bad) influenced you the most? Make a list of five experiences, and select the most compelling one to write about.
- What are your favourite stories? Use the 3 Steps to reverse engineer the main relationship, find the emotional core, and understand why these elements connected with you.
- When all else fails, just write!
The truth is that sometimes you’ll only find out what you’re actually writing about after you finish. This seems particularly true when writing the first draft of a book, and if you’re at that stage, I recommend #3 above all else.
To Sum It All Up
To find the emotional core of any narrative, including your own, focus on the main relationship in the story. Think about who is involved, why the relationship exists, what conflicts muck things up, and what happens to the relationship at the end of the story.
It’s not rocket science, but that’s probably why it works.
Millie’s Note: What emotional cores do you relate to?