What’s inside the heart of a story? Slice it open and see.

This week, we’re talking about the emotional core of your story. Tying back into what I was saying last week about endings: you can’t write a proper ending unless you’ve tapped into the emotional core of your story. Without an emotional core you might create something entertaining, but not something memorable.

The best thing I’ve ever read on the subject is this post by Chuck Wendig, who argues that while a story can be about any subject, and deal with any emotional theme, the core of the core is always sadness “like the black cyanide seeds at the heart of the apple.” He uses the notably un-sad movies Star Wars and Die Hard to make his point. I agree with him absolutely. Why?

Because in the end, everything dies, even you and I. It is only the hope that some force, call it God or love or the human soul, is so powerful as to fall outside the brutal entropy of time, only that blind, willing hope, that enables us to shuffle on as human beings.

The thought that we can create something outside of ourselves, a story that will touch others long after we have crumbled to dust, is what drives to us create. It’s the closest to immortality you can quantifiably get. I lived. I loved. Don’t forget me when I’m gone.

There is a desperate sadness in that; and your sadness may be leavened with joy or pragmatism or fear, depending on your personal beliefs, but the sadness is the one constant, the absolute universal, the pain of being human. And that is why it’s the core of the core.

Any story needs conflict. Conflict is two things: suffering, and resistance to suffering, which often begets yet more suffering. We are amused by this because we understand it intrinsically. (And comedians understand it best of all. You laugh, so you don’t cry.)

So the conflict, the plot, is easy. What’s harder is finding the grace notes; the killing line of dialogue, the expert conveyance of mood through setting, the tone of your particular word choice — every single sentence should do more than simply advance the plot. All these elements must work together to build your story’s broken heart. If you do it well enough, that broken heart will beat all the same.