Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
Focus is one of the most important elements in fiction. By focusing your story on certain characters, events, and ideas, you are choosing to not focus on other characters, other events. You’re saying “these specific elements matter most.” You’re cutting out all the people, events, years, and themes that don’t matter to your story. Without focus, readers would simply be taken on a rambling journey through tons of material that has no apparent relevance. Focusing your novel to discuss certain characters at a certain point in time dealing with specific experiences and held together by specific ideas (loss, grief, revenge, first love) allows the story to have meaning and impact. Focus gives clarity. It allows the reader to see what’s important and why.
Here’s the part I find fascinating: focus often helps the writer to see what’s important and why, and then shape the story to explore those ideas more deeply. Knowing the focus as you write can help you cut tangents, limit your themes to give the ones you have to have room to breathe, and challenge your characters with experiences that push them in meaningful ways.
So how do you know what the focus of your story should be? Rule 14 is the answer. When I start concepting a novel, there’s usually something that originally drew me to that idea. Something that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. Something about the idea has emotional resonance with me. Maybe it’s the trauma of powerlessness, or the wearing effect of daily life on relationships. Maybe it’s the strength of innocence. Use that detail, that idea, to shape the whole story.
Finding out why that idea grips me so strongly helps me figure out what’s at the heart of the story. This is what makes it MY story. It’s what makes it different from how anyone else would write it. And it’s what keeps me writing when it gets difficult, when I’m busy and tired, and when I’m not sure if I can do it. That bit of an idea shapes the characters and events, keeps me going, and makes the story unique. It’s the heart of the story.