December 12, 2019

Author Insights: What’s Our Core Story?

Closeup of avocado cross-section with text: What's the Core of Our Storytelling?

As readers, we often enjoy stories that make us feel seen or understood. Or maybe stories that help us understand others by sharing a perspective we hadn’t considered or fully grasped before.

That means, as writers, we need to possess those deep understandings or perspectives to share them with readers. In other words, the better we understand ourselves, the better writer we’ll be.

One way we can better understand ourselves is to explore our core story. What resonates with us and makes us passionate about writing?

What Do We Mean by “Our Core Story”?

I’ve talked before about finding our story’s essence, but that’s not quite what I mean here. While it’s good to know what makes a story feel like “ours”—our voice, our style, etc.—or what the stories we tell mean to us, our core story is more about us.

Our core story digs past all the superficial stuff like…

  • genre
  • plot/stakes/pacing
  • worldbuilding,
  • etc.

…and focuses on the deeper commonalities between the stories we choose to tell.

For example, maybe our stories all include characters and/or emotional arcs about characters learning to trust that they deserve happiness. That would be our core story. (Although it’s possible to have more than one core story, they’d often be related or similar.)

How Can Knowing Our Core Story Help Us?

A while back, I posted about how one element of branding is understanding (and potentially enhancing) what our brand promises to readers. In other words, part of our brand is our “author promise”—what we teach readers to expect from our stories.

What's our “core” story, and how can it help us write? Click To TweetAs I mentioned in that post, the better we can deliver on the expectations of readers, the stronger impression they’ll have of our work, and the higher our chances of being some readers’ go-to author.

Similarly, the better we know and understand our core story, the better we’ll be at enhancing that aspect in each story we write. The more conscious we are of that core-story element, the more we can give it the proper emphasis in our stories, rather than being a side effect.

In addition, with that knowledge, the better we’ll be at marketing, reaching out to new potential readers, finding similar authors to partner with, planning future stories, etc. For example, knowing our core story could help us come up with an author tagline that would apply to everything we write.

Is Our Core Story Tied to Genre?

If we go back to my example core story—characters learning to trust that they deserve happiness—we can see that it’s not related to a specific genre. Or for that matter, it’s not tied to a type of character, plot, or premise, etc. either.

That idea could be explored in countless settings, plots, or even emotional arcs. The characters could all feel undeserving to different extents, for different reasons, with different fears, suffer from different symptoms of false beliefs, etc.

This points out another benefit of knowing and understanding our core story: If we know our core story—just like with our author-brand promise—we might have more success switching genres because we’ll always know how to stay true to ourselves and our “author essence.”

As I’ve talked about before, genre is just a layer of worldbuilding on top of our story. The same story idea can play out with different plot points in different genres, but all lead to the same essential conflict.

Are We Limited to Writing with Our Core Story?

All this talk about meeting expectations and telling stories with common elements might feel limiting—like we’re doomed to tell the same story over and over again. But that’s not the case at all.

Our core story is related to our worldview—and specifically, how our worldview is reflected by our stories’ themes, conflicts, characters, and/or our characters’ emotional arcs.

As I’ve written about before, our worldview colors almost everything about our stories:

“Our view of the world—optimistic or pessimistic, God does or doesn’t exist, true love is possible or not, people are basically good or selfish, technology will help us or kill us, etc.—is so deeply a part of us that we might not consciously recognize it as a construct of our mind.

Despite us not always being consciously aware of those beliefs, more often than not, our stories will reflect that worldview. … We might not even be able to write against our worldview.”

Similarly, just like with our worldview, we might not even be able to write against our core story. For example, if our core story sees our characters learning to trust that they deserve happiness, then we’re unlikely to even want to write a story that opposes that idea.

Writing a protagonist who doesn’t learn to trust, or who doesn’t deserve happiness at all? No thanks. (If that is our core story, of course.)

So this isn’t about limiting ourselves, but rather about understanding behavior we’re already doing. We’re just capturing this knowledge in a conscious way so we can make use of it.

How Do We Identify Our Core Story?

Great, you might be saying, but how do we learn what our core story is?

A great RWA Two-Minute Tip video by author Maisey Yates explores one way of approaching this question:

RWA Two-Minute Tip: Your Core Story

As Maisey explains, one way of finding our core story is by looking for the deep emotional truth behind a character’s backstory wound. But she also alludes to another perspective—one that might help even if our characters don’t go through big emotional arcs.

Some Story Beats Can Expose Our Core Story

She mentions that we can look at the core of a character’s fears revealed during a story’s Black Moment. And she’s right that certain story beats tend to bring core elements of our story closer to the foreground for us to analyze.

  • As Maisey shares, the Black Moment—when our character(s) loses hope—is a great story beat to analyze for character arc commonalities between our stories.
    For example, what emotion tends to drive their fears? Distrust, loneliness, insecurity, etc. Similarities can point toward emotional aspects of our core story.
  • Alternatively, the Climax of our story—when our character(s) confronts (and overcomes) the story problem—is a great story beat to analyze for theme and/or conflict commonalities between our stories.
    For example, what type of conflict do they confront? Corruption, power, lies, jealousy, etc. Or how is the conflict overcome at a high level? Characters working together, characters learning and growing, villain’s power turned against them, etc. Similarities might point to conflict or theme aspects of our core story.

What Makes a Story Part of Us?

Our core story can often be found when we whittle every detail down to the most basic level:

  • good can triumph over evil
  • we deserve happiness despite…whatever
  • love is strong

At that level, it’s easier to see what I explained above: Our core story reflects our worldview—especially in our stories’ themes, conflicts, characters, and/or our characters’ emotional arcs.

As I mentioned in the introduction, understanding our core story can also help us improve our storytelling. We can emphasize aspects of our writing to highlight the “truth” we want to share. In turn, that deep truth will resonate with readers, adding to their own insights about life and encouraging them to connect with us and our stories. *smile*

Have you ever thought about the deep commonalities of your stories? If so, what have you discovered? Do you think understanding your core story might help your storytelling or marketing? Does Maisey’s video help explain how to recognize our core story? Can you think of other ways understanding our core story might help us, or do you have any questions about the idea of a core story?

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This is a great article, again! I love that video by Maisey Yates, she’s amazing


This is very helpful!

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