Writing Tips

3 Steps to Find a Story’s Emotional Core

By December 8, 2015 12 Comments

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:

  1. Why does the relationship exist?
  2. What are the conflicts in this relationship?
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

That’s it.

It’s not rocket science, but that’s probably why it works.


Millie’s Note: What emotional cores do you relate to?

Join the discussion 12 Comments

  • aetherhouse says:

    Obviously this speaks very closely to your beta analysis of my book, and watching the video helped me get even deeper into your head as a writer and as a critique partner. 😉 I couldn’t agree more with all that you said – as someone who was raised by fandom and shipping and fanfiction, the relationships in a story are always what stick with me the longest. Even if the characters themselves are interesting as individuals, I am still left wanting if their chemistry with each other is not resonant or memorable. I think the emotional core is what people refer to when they say “that movie has a lot of heart.” And a story without it seems “dead” or “dull” or “forgettable.” I’ve written stuff that felt dead before – and I don’t think I could ever see such a project through to the end. The emotional core of a WIP pretty much gives me the passion to complete a project from the start.

    I also liked your point about the emotional core paralleling the plot. I actually paused it and asked myself “does my book do this? I’m not sure it does.” but was surprised to realize that it DOES. The complex relationship between humanity and the divine is central to my main relationship – as one is human, the other is an angel, and they spend much of the series negotiating these differences and finding common ground – but also central to the overall conflict these characters are thrust into. The entire conflict of my first book hinges upon the divine’s mass mishandling of how to treat humans. Further books will explore the antagonistic common ancestor between humans and the divine, and how a human/angel partnership compares against these common ancestors in conflict.

    • Millie Ho says:

      It’s neat that you bring up fandom, because I was just thinking about how some of the most raw and honest writing is produced by writers who are interested in exploring character relationships in more depth within a fanfiction story. You’re right, it’s not just the characters themselves that audiences focus on—often, it’s the chemistry between characters. I think reading/writing fanfiction is a great way to explore the emotional core and become familiar with all the elements leading to satisfying (or pleasantly unsatisfying) relationships.

      I did get a sense that your emotional core paralleled the plot as well. I think the parallels are inevitable, because if we started with the emotional core of a WIP and wrote a story around it, then there are going to be elements that overlap. This was what I meant when I talked about taking the emotional core and making it bigger than the characters. It’s something that is bound to happen, whether we are aware of it or not. I look forward to reading your future books that explore the human/angel partnership and antagonistic ancestors.

  • So true, the emotion of the story is what I remember about a book. It resonates long after I finish reading.

  • kvennarad says:

    “… 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…”

    I believe what you have run up against here is something modernist writers, especially the likes of Virginia Woolf, ran up against in the early 20c. – that in conventional fiction, although the story is presented as a sequence of cause-and-effect events, it is in fact driven by a pre-conceived end. To me, that is what is suggested by the term ‘procedural elements’. That is a rigidity in fiction which I find stultifying. It is so… goddamned… MALE! And yet you can’t go onto any writing advice site, even one conducted by a woman, without finding a heavy emphasis on plot structure. Its as though the Victorian and Edwardian novel – that bloody, moribund thing – were a zombie that just won’t lie down. There was so much for the modernists to do, so much they gave to literature that simply has not been picked up and run with: Katherine Mansfield’s and James Joyce’s slices of life as short stories, Virginia Woolf’s ‘Orlando’ with its build-ups and bathos, such things as these challenged the one-terminal-orgasm of the male-driven story. The E E ‘Doc’ Smith syndrome. Sorry – I’m bad-mouthing a great sci-fi writer when I have read and enjoyed all his work, but to be honest, now I look back on them, his stories were about as emotional as a brick.

    Yet you and I are not ‘male writers’ (even some male writers are not ‘male writers’, thank God!). We’re SUPPOSED to be ’emotional’, or so they have been telling us for generations. It’s a woman thing, apparently.

    I’m just thinking back to my own novels. I’ll not start blowing my own trumpet, but… okay, I’ll blow my own trumpet! LOL. Somebody said of my ‘Lupa’ that “it’s the kind of powerful read you walk around with in your head for days after.” I don’t think that had anything to do with the plot or the structure or being led by the end – after all, one of the major characters just dies, and dies pretty undramatically, and the other major ‘ends up’ looking at future possibilities. I think it had to do with allowing the reader to live with the feelings of the characters as the plot developed.

    Stephen King: “Yeah, but when fiction works for me it works on an emotional level first and an intellectual level second.” – Wow! THAT from one of the greatest story-spinners writing. THAT from a guy who, admittedly, writes end-driven narrative. That’s something!

    “What happens to the relationship at the end?” – Actually, I don’t think that matters a great deal. That attitude to relationships re-imposes the concept of end-driven, it assumes that relationships and the emotions they contain reach some sort of resolution-place, almost in terms of “and they all lived happily ever after”. What gets to me is “and they continued to live”.

    You once told me that my writing was ‘visceral’. I’m not always aware of that as I write. Sometimes I play around with structure and style, sometimes I pastiche other writers (I get called ‘post-modernist’ for that, despite my love of modernism). Thus I don’t really know how to answer your final question.

    Thank you for another fascinating set of insights. I am looking forward to Nash Moor. meanwhile I shall direct some other readers to this blog post.


    • Millie Ho says:

      Ah, my interpretation of ‘procedural elements’ has more to do with police procedurals and the investigation of crimes rather than anything to do with a linear narrative. However, I totally get what you mean about how stories that are more end-driven seem to focus more on cause-and-effect instead of a satisfying emotional core. I suppose police procedurals would be more end-driven (‘whodunnit’) than other stories, though the stories that always stuck with me were non-linear and heavily emphasized characters and character relationships rather than the actual crimes.

      Re: feedback for Lupa, that’s a huge compliment! Actually, I can see how the feedback relates to how Stephen King writes. If he’s stuck on something, he would take a long walk and tell himself the story verbally. It’s almost like he’s reverse engineering the response he’d like to receive from the reader (i.e.: readers walking around, thinking about the parts they liked from his story). The parts that stick on his walk, he writes about. My guess is that the parts that stick are usually the emotional parts, which is why his books are full of ’em. And it’s true, the stories that I think about when I’m walking around days after reading them have very strong emotional cores. I’m left with the feelings of the characters and a sense of wonderment.

      Regarding my #3 Step about what happens to the relationship at the end, I understand how it can come across as end-driven. My thinking was that it’s not so much about the end of the relationship, but about the end of the narrative, and how the relationship transformed at the end of it. The relationship could very well end, like it did in Rum Punch/Jackie Brown, or it could be open-ended and ambiguous. I like the idea of “and they continued to live”. I’ll think about this some more.

      Thanks for your support and insights, and I promise you’ll see a draft soon!

  • Karen Wan says:

    Great post, Millie! Just what I needed to read today!

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