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The Heart of the Matter

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As writers, we all have our strengths. For some it's an incredible ability to world build; others create complex, vibrant characters, who leap off the page; still others craft prose the rest of us would kill to approximate. Whatever your strength or talent, by all means, nurture it!

But can there ever be too much of a good thing?

I recently dug out a trunked novel of mine from years ago. When I opened up the document and began reading, I found myself falling in love the voice and the set up, and I wondered why I’d set it aside in the first place. But by the time I got to the end, I was left feeling underwhelmed. So what happened? Where did it go wrong? Upon reflection, I was able to figure out that somehow in the voicey-voiciness and the clever premise, I’d missed something crucial: an emotional plot.

See, I don't think it's enough for the characters to have feelings about their journey, and it’s not enough for the reader to have feelings for the characters. The reader needs to feel something about the journey, too. The plot itself has to be affecting. 

There's got to be heart.

One of my very favorite films is The Night of the Hunter. At face value, it’s a story about two little children on the run from a man who’s killed their mother and who wants to steal money from them. At its heart, the film is a story about the fragility of innocence and the way hope is preserved in a cruel, cruel world.

It’s stories like these, stories with heart, that are the ones that stick with us--like Wonder, A Monster Calls, Harry Potter, Speak, How I Live Now, Living Dead Girl, Where Things Come Back. And getting that kind of heart into one’s own writing sometimes means not relying on your writerly strengths, those things you do well, but instead tapping into places far less comfortable and natural. 

What about you? What are your writerly strengths? What are your challenges?

Stephanie Kuehn

Stephanie is the William C. Morris award-winning author of Charm & Strange, Complicit, Delicate Monsters, and The Smaller Evil.

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  1. I love this post! I definetly think that we can play up our writing strengths and ignore our weaknesses (at least I think I do), but it takes more than one thing to make a truly good book. For me, I can't get involved in a book that is simply characters. They have to be going somewhere for it to mean something.

    1. Thanks, Claudia! Yes, I agree--there are so many elements to balance, but that deeper meaning is what can make a book greater than the sum of its parts.


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Item Reviewed: The Heart of the Matter Rating: 5 Reviewed By: stephanie kuehn