It’s Alive! How (and Why) to Find the Heartbeat of Your Story
by Daryl C. Rothman
A little word association: I say Jurassic Park, you say…? Dinosaurs? Spielberg? Sequels? Most likely, not Ivar Ekeland or James Gleick. But author Michael Crichton credits them in his acknowledgements for the book, and Jeff Goldblum consulted both in preparation for his role as resident chaotician in the film. Ekeland's Mathematics and the Unexpected and Gleick's Chaos: A New Kind of Science profoundly influenced Crichton’s formative notions for the iconic tale. But a story about fractals, or even Dragon Curves — the iterations/progressions of chaos theory — would not likely have achieved a sliver of the success that the novels ultimately did. Crichton needed to find his “It,” that special something, the heartbeat of his story. The dinos, yes, but even more than that, compelling and relatable characters around whom they would thunder up from extinction.
The idea, of course, also harkens back to Mary Shelley’s classic, cautionary tale, and much like good Dr. Frankenstein, any perseverant scribe must assemble not merely the parts and pieces of his or her creation, but conjure that magical spark which will compel it to life. The It. The heartbeat. “There is something in us,” mused Flannery O’Connor, “as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act…” And so it is that even if redemption is not your story’s theme, O’Connor is at least correct that things need to matter: the characters, the conflict, the salvation, or even the failure. If they don’t, if in the end it’s just bells and whistles and frills, even mind-blowing T-rex-sized frills, the story will fall flat, with a monstrous thud.
There’s a pseudo-scientific term, SW2C. It represents So What & Who Cares? If it applies to your story, no measure of literary legerdemain will save the day.
Martina Boone describes hearing agent-extraordinaire Donald Maas’s sage advice on some additional key questions each author should ask herself: If you could preserve but one scene in your work-in-progress, which would you retain, and why? Why does it speak to you? Why is it essential? What takeaway do you want for your reader? Answer those questions, and there’s a fair chance you’ve found that heartbeat, that magic, that redemptive act of which O’Connor spoke. Bottle it. You’ll be glad you did.
To find and palpably convey the heartbeat of your story is to find the engine that will drive it forward. It is your Muse incarnate, that certain something which will compel you to the page and breathe life into your creation. One evening after taking my son to one of the Harry Potter films, and beholding the sense of wonder of so many youngsters (and adults), I promised my boy to write a story based on him, one filled with magic and adventure. Soon thereafter, an idea fell to me about immortality and secret worlds and bitter rivalries that persevered from one century to the next.
I wrote it in fits and stops for more than a year, until one day it hit me that, despite having an imaginative concept, and some pretty fair writing, my story lacked that certain something, that certain oomph. Not long after, I was watching my son and very young daughter playing in a park, when a very large bee circled precariously close to my little girl. My son spotted it before I did, and rushed forward and scooped his little sister up in his arms and ushered her from harm’s way. A small thing, perhaps, but bee allergies run in our family. He was a bit scared, and yet did not hesitate to place his sister’s welfare before his own. And with that, I had it. The moment epitomized the sacred, protective bond between them, an unspoken covenant which in that very moment crystallized as the heartbeat of my story.
For all the things magical, for all the worlds and lifetimes and mysteries, the story was hollow until that point. No matter how mysterious and dark the worlds I was creating, they alone were insufficient to make folks care. But here was my chance to translate to the page a bit of that which I cared about more than anything, and in so doing, find the touchstone for my tale.
“Authors,” Richard P. Denney reminds us, “do not choose a story to write, the story chooses us.” Like the wand to the wizard, the story to the scribe. Magic.