Finding the Pulse of a Story

When I write a rough draft of a story or novel, I am constantly looking for its pulse, the raw energy of a story, the point of transition in which the story takes on a life of its own and seems almost to write itself.

That being said, there is nothing wrong with writing rough drafts that lag. I write them all the time because I have to start somewhere. In fact, sometimes my story does not come to life for me until after I have written my self-conscious, plodding. uninspired rough draft. But after having been through the process many times, I have learned some things about making dead prose stir to life.

In fiction, a problem that I have grappled with, which can be solved early on, is the strength of character motive.

Sometimes stories lag because characters have weak motives, because characters only sort of want what they want, the way they might want a potato chip between meals, or because they want an object – like a spatula – very badly without having an urgent human reason to want it.

I want things unemotionally and without drama all the time. In the mornings I want coffee. But unless there is a deeper desire behind this mundane, and usually easily gratified desire, it is not normally compelling enough, alone, to make a story – at least not in a society where coffee is easy to obtain.

A want for coffee would become more far compelling if I lived in a post-apocalyptic world where coffee was almost impossible to get; in a deplorable, decaffeinated wasteland, coffee would become more than itself, a rich symbol of the old world which has been lost.

When it comes to fictional desire, context is everything. Suppose I were to write a story about a woman who wants to wear a red dress.  Wanting to wear a red dress is not a strong story motivation by itself. What makes it compelling is knowing what the red dress means to a character. In the movie Requiem for a Dream a single, middle-aged, and slightly overweight mother of a heroin-addicted son learns that she has won a spot on a television game show.

The prospect of appearing before thousands of viewers triggers an elaborate fantasy of reclaiming her youth and former beauty by fitting into a tiny red dress that she wore at a happier time during her life with her husband. She imagines being applauded for her great beauty as she humbly accepts praise in her stunning red dress on a stage before an adoring crowd. As a result, she goes on a strict diet and becomes addicted to amphetamine diet pills, which leads to a terrifying downward spiral culminating in her hospitalization.

The red dress is not just a pretty strip of fabric; it is a symbol of a greater desire: to feel special, loved, and wanted at a time when her sense of worth has diminished. Behind her simple want to wear a red dress is a poignant, lonely, and even tragic, desperation.

That is the kind of motive that makes stories seem to write themselves. The same is true when characters desperately wants two things at once, such as romantic love and total independence, but getting one thing, they yearn for means not getting the other thing they crave. An inner conflict can serve as the pulse of a story, a driving force that moves the character into the storms of conflict and into the realms of change.

How do I get to know the deepest desires of a character? Some professional writers advise filling out questionnaires about characters. However, I gain a more intuitive understanding from points of view. Sometimes when I write short stories, I begin with a detached, and often boring, third person narrative voice, but as soon as I begin to view the action through the lens of a thinking, feeling, and yearning individual character, whether it is a doctor, dog, toddler, thief, or villain, my story gains the first murmurings of a pulse.

If a character I am writing about only in third person is behaving robotically, I can almost always solve the problem by stopping and writing a brief “point of view study,” just a few paragraphs to gather what my character is thinking and feeling; afterward, I have a far better grasp of what she will do or say. When I rewrite, their outward behavior becomes more natural.

However, the pulse of a narrative goes beyond character. A powerful theme can serve as the pulse of a story as well. Sue Monk Kidd, the bestselling author of The Secret Life of Bees, advised writers to “go for the jugular.” For her this meant challenging the cultural trends of racism and misogyny that are so entrenched in the Deep South where she lives.

I agree. I sometimes find myself being too safe and inoffensive when I write; I know this is happening when I start to feel bored. I remind myself, when you write, say what others are afraid to say; ask the hard questions that have no easy answers; challenge the sacred; shine light into the dark corners you have never seen anyone else explore; write about the topics that keep coming back to you, that tear down the illusion of a stable world, that haunt you, that flip the world on its head.

Anne Rice wrote some additional advice I wish I had written: “Go where the pain is. Go where the pleasure is; go where the excitement is. Believe in your own original approach, voice, characters, story. Ignore critics. Have nerve. Be stubborn.”

Having nerve and being stubborn are not generally encouraged by teachers and editors, yet they are excellent ways to make sure the pulse of a story remains strong. When you write, a chorus of internal critics will tell you what should, and should not, write about. They will lecture you about what is socially acceptable, and what is not. They will tell you what readers or publishers do, or do not, like. They will instill fear and evoke images of shocked and angry faces. They will have you apologizing to an imaginary mob before you even write a word if you let them.

But for words to have a pulse they have to reflect what is true, and the truth, if it is about anything that matters, is bound to offend some people. If you find that internalized parental figures or stodgy teachers are directing your pen, steering you away from dangerous subjects and nudging you toward safe ones, it is time to rebel.

Recently I made a decision to be stubborn about a work of fiction even though my first impulse was to apologize. In my recently published novel Paw there is a scene in which my “hero” does something horribly unheroic in a fit of passion. My mom chastised me for allowing my main character to misbehave so recklessly. I found myself wanting to defend my character who, despite her crime, had been in a horribly desperate and painful situation. Although I regretted that my scene had upset my mom, I thought it needed to be there. Even though I worried others would react the same way she had, I kept my scene.

When I began working on my sequel, I was glad I did. I was struggling to find the energy, the pulse, of my follow-up story. I floundered for about 80 pages until I remembered the tragic scene in Paw with its naked moment of truth. Then I realized that the scene my mom had hated contained the pulse of my sequel; that was where all the energy was. Although not many consequences had followed the dark scene in Book I of my series, I could now envision many.

I remembered what Anne Rice had said: “Go where the pain is.” Emotionally the event fit the bill. It reverberated. It would be a memory that would haunt my main character for years to come, producing far-reaching consequences that would strike right into the heart of my theme.

However, in fiction, theme can never be forced and should never seem imposed by the author from the outside. It is bound up with characters, their motives, their experiences, and the way they see the world. However, when a strong character motive and a strong theme converge in a way that feels natural, a story gains more than a pulse; it takes its first autonomous breath and begins to move, almost magically, on its own.


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6 thoughts on “Finding the Pulse of a Story

  1. I really love reading your posts. They inspire me to be strong when my inner critic is warning me that people might disagree or be offended by what I’ve written. I also love “Have nerve. Be stubborn.” I’ll remember that! Thank you.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed my post, and I’m so glad my blog inspires you to be strong when faced with possible criticism! During moments of trepidation I sometimes feel like I need to go back and read my old posts to remember why I really write. The need to “have nerve and be stubborn” is too easy to forget. 🙂

  2. It’s even more challenging for writers and artists to ‘go where the pain is’ because everyone these days seems to be a critic. One wrong step when can land you in the chastising spotlight. I find myself having to edit down what I consider funny, but what others might consider offensive. I rather hate the PC world we live in right now. Ah, well…soldier on!

    • Well said Lani! I understand all too well what you mean. Part of the pain of writing is feeling strait-jacketed by the norms and rules of etiquette that come from easily offended people. Insisting on creative freedom as more important than arbitrary rules is a constant battle, but a necessary one. Otherwise I risk shutting down and being unable to write anything interesting — or worth saying — at all.

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