The Art of Fiction: The Heart of the Matter

September 1, 2006
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Dissonance
Dissonance, a Novel by Lisa Lenard-Cook
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The Art of Fiction:

The Heart of the Matter

by Lisa Lenard-Cook

September 2006

". . . I discover quite often when I read others’ works-in-progress is that the heart of the matter is in the wrong place."

—Lenard-Cook

One of the things I discover quite often when I read others’ works-in-progress is that the heart of the matter is in the wrong place. Based on what we know about story arcs and plot trajectories, we writers like to believe that the biggest thing in a fiction—its heart, in other words—must always occur at its climax.

But the biggest thing is not always the most dramatic. It may be what sets the fiction in motion. It may be what ultimately resolves the plot for the protagonist. Or it may occur at the first big turn, which should happen about a quarter of the way in, or at the halfway point shift.

". . .like so many other things about writing fiction, the key to your fiction’s heart lies at its inception."

—Lenard-Cook

Where in Your Fiction Does the Biggest Thing Happen?

Separating your fiction’s heart from its climax may seem (in its way) like performing open heart surgery. But in fact, like so many other things about writing fiction, the key to your fiction’s heart lies at its inception.

To help you determine where your biggest thing should occur, here are four questions to ask yourself about your fiction’s heart. What is the biggest thing that happens in your fiction? Where in your story does the biggest thing happen? Is this the right place? How does this event connect to where the story begins? Consider each of these questions one at a time, rather than all at once. Since we looked at Ernest Hemingway’s novella The Old Man and the Sea last month, I’ll stick with the same small book for this month’s points.

Where in The Old Man and the Sea does the biggest thing happen? Well, first of all, we need to decide what the biggest thing is. Is it the lengthy struggle between man and fish? Or is it what Santiago learns as a result of that struggle? Maybe it’s the sharks, eating the fish tied to the side of Santiago’s boat as he heads home after the struggle. Or maybe it’s at the end of the novella, when the boy finds the fish’s skeleton lashed to the side of the boat, and rushes to the old man’s shack, where he finds Santiago tired and battered, but nonetheless alive.

Dramatically speaking, the biggest thing in The Old Man and the Sea is the lengthy struggle between Santiago and the marlin, which takes up the central portion of the novella. Now what if the book had begun with this struggle? Or what if it were its climax? Do you see how the novella would change if either of those were the case? This struggle is the central idea of the book as well as its literal center, the perfect place for it.

"The craft of plot lies in hooking your reader from the very first sentence . . ."

—Lenard-Cook

The Beginning Contains All That Comes After

You’ll notice that number 4, above, refers to something I come back to again and again: Where does it begin? We had some fun in my workshops at the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference in June, finding the seeds of all that comes after in famous first sentences like “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times,” and “Call me Ishmael.” But the point of that exercise was really to help writers see where their own fictions should begin.

The Old Man and the Sea begins this way: “He was an old man who fished alone in the Gulf Stream and he had been gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” I love that “now.” Read the sentence aloud with and without it and see how it changes not just the sentence and its rhythm but everything that comes after. That one word plunks us into the heart of the old man’s story. This is what I mean by a first sentence containing the seeds of all that comes after.

Once you’ve finished your first draft and let it percolate for a while, you’ll find it much easier to see where your fiction really begins. The craft of plot lies in hooking your reader from the very first sentence and not letting go until you reach the shore together.

About
Lisa Lenard-Cook

Lisa Lenard-Cook is a regular columnist for Authorlink. She is an award-winning published author and writing instructor. This is another in the series, The Art of Fiction. Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink. Read more about Lisa.

Lisa Lenard-Cook's novel Dissonance was short-listed for the PEN Southwest Book Award, a selection of NPR Performance Today's Summer Reading Series, and the countywide choice for Durango-La Plata Reads. She lives in Corrales, New Mexico, where she is currently adapting Dissonance for the stage.

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Copyright 2006-2008 by Lisa Lenard-Cook and Authorlink.

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