The Merriam-Webster online dictionary says that the heart is the organ in your chest that pumps blood through your veins and arteries. It’s in the front part of your chest and it’s thought of as the place where emotions are felt.
I like that simplified definition.
Like everything else I see, hear, touch, smell and taste … I apply “heart” to my writing and the books I read. Heart is what makes our books live.
Do my stories have heart? Do they make readers laugh, cry … feel anything at all?
I’ve watched my daughter, an avid reader, sob through most of Karen Kingsbury’s books. If you’re familiar with KK you know she’s one of the top Christian authors of our time, and writes heart-rending fiction. I’m sure all her readers sob.
But how about this: Daughter also cried uncontrollably when she read Dean and Me: A Love Story by Jerry Lewis. That book is nonfiction about the 10 year partnership of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Figure out those tears!
She read (and cried) in The Paris Wife about Hemingway and Hadley, his first wife.
Now before you accuse Daughter of being highly emotional and able to cry at the drop of a hat, no. That’s not her.
However, I do know why she cried. Those books have heart.
That should be our goal. To conjure up such emotion in our readers that they laugh or cry beyond their control.
How do we do it?
First, we use the senses, we know our characters inside and out, we use active verbs and words that paint pictures, but until we’re capable of putting ourselves in a character’s POV and walk in their shoes—suffer with them, cry with them, feel their pain and loss, we won’t be able to pull it off.
We must also consider pacing.
A reader has to develop a relationship with our characters. If our pace is too fast, the reader doesn’t sufficiently bond with our characters. If our pace is too slow, our readers get bored.
Tricky, isn’t it.
I’ve read books where good characters die and I didn’t shed a tear. The last time I cried while reading a book was in The Guise of Another by Allen Eskens. Guise is about two brothers, both detectives, and one of them is on a downward spiral. The relationship I developed with these two brothers surprised me. I think Eskens broke a lot of rules when it came to creating this story—but he knew what he was doing and he pulled it off. His characters are still with me–in my head and in my heart–even though I read his books last year.
The next book you read, study it for heart. Pay attention to the emotion you feel while reading it.
But honestly, I wonder if we can teach writers how to write “heart” into their stories. Doesn’t it have to come from within us? Maybe we have to pour our own love, sadness, brokeness, and fear into our characters before their stories truly touch a reader’s life. What do you think?