What Is Your Core Story?

“How autobiographical are your stories?”

We’ve all heard this question. And we’ve all struggled with how to answer it. My initial answer to this question used to be “not very much at all”—after all, I can honestly say I’ve never been in the situations I put my characters in. But then I thought about that. I’ve never been in those situations, true, but I’ve certainly felt the emotions my characters are feeling.

Maybe my answer should be yes.

After all, I’m tipping more of my hand than I think when I write character reactions. I’m telling the reader what my reaction to a given situation is—how frightening I think it is, or how sad. Think of the veteran who throws himself to the ground at the sound of fireworks or the person who can’t breathe when someone drives too fast, while others love the Fourth of July or want nothing more than to weave in and out of traffic as fast as possible. The reactions I write, just like the veteran and the person afraid of fast driving, reveal how autobiographical a story truly is.

The real question is, why does this matter?

And this brings us to “core story.” Shelley Bates, in a wonderful class on the symbolic and thematic importance of setting, said every writer has a core story. This is the story you’re really telling over and over, regardless of the outward trappings of the words on the page. But what is a “core story”? And why would we write it over and over? Theresa Stevens’[1] answer is…paradox. For example, death is a paradox. We don’t know what happens and we don’t really understand it. But in a novel, we can know—we can solve the paradox in the microcosm in a way we can’t in the macrocosm.

Core story is driven by the things we haven’t figured out. It’s the problems we keep trying to solve, the wounds we keep trying to heal. It’s the things that go bump in the night of a writer’s mind.

“Darkness is for the imagination, and provides a canvas to reveal the light.”

–Lighting architect Rogier van der Heide

We know the places in us that hurt, that won’t sit still, that feel like red ants stinging under our skin. We can’t escape the voice at the core of our soul, the one that’s longing to be heard. It’s this voice, I believe, that drives us to be writers in the first place. And those unresolved issues constitute our core story.

It’s easy to scoff at this. “No way. I write sweet romance. There’s no dark thing hidden in what I write.” I felt this way, too, but even in sweet romance there are always complications, conflicts. Look at what those are—I guarantee there is something tying those conflicts together in every book you write, something at the base of all the complications.

It’s important to dive into this because if we can figure out our core story, we can write consciously about it, and that brings a whole different level to our writing. At this level, every story is autobiographical, and every story has the chance to offer a new angle on the same paradox many others face. When we write from this level, we offer true, conscious hope.

When I looked at my own stories, I discovered something I was trying over and over to solve in the microcosm. I discovered…a scream. The kind of scream your soul makes when you feel totally, utterly alone, haunted by past pain and fear.

Before you start to worry about me, I’m fine. But this scream is something that echoes in me and it’s something I’ve spent every word I’ve written trying to understand, and take a step toward healing. Every one of my stories is different, and yes, I could even write sweet romances, but at the core of all of them is the same hunt: over and over, I put my characters in situations where they have to deal with some kind of incessant, internal scream.

My core story.

This is Flannery O’Connor. You bet your ass she knew her core story.

Because I know that, I can now consciously create these screams and I know how to plot them and how to create conflict that will at first intensify them and then, ultimately, bring them to an end (or at least a conclusion). But more importantly, I can use my stories to explore the very real paradox of trying to find authentic connection with such a scream at your core. I can explore thousands of answers to the questions I now know I’m asking. Knowing my core story gives my stories a focus they didn’t have before.

Can a core story change? Of course. As we gain age and wisdom, we can’t help but solve some paradoxes, only to uncover others. We will move through our core stories as we move through our lives, as we dig deeper and deeper into ourselves and understand not only what we’ve been through, but who we really are. I can trace my progress with my own core story as I re-read the stories I’ve written over the years.

Core stories are the real answer to the question “How autobiographical are your stories?” And it’s by coming from core stories that we create the kind of art that touches others on the deepest levels. Don’t be afraid of the things that go bump in the night. Give them voice—and offer up your own growth and understanding to the world.

[1] RWA Meeting Presentation, Fairytale Structure, September 2013