What’s at the heart of a successful book? A multitude of answers could be offered up: an intriguing premise, engaging characters, a strong voice, a plot that twists and surprises.
Before you get caught up in a debate about which of these book elements matters most, consider this: At the heart of a book is, quite simply, its heart. As in the human body, it muscles ceaselessly, behind the scenes. Without it, you have the shell of a thing, but no life. The means to finding the heart of a book—the stethoscope, if you will—comes through posing a simple question of yourself as its author: What’s this book really about?
A book’s heart isn’t the same as its topic or its sales pitch or its premise, though articulating each of those can be helpful to your overall understanding of your project. The heart is the book’s life source, the reason you’re compelled to write it, no matter the cost in time and energy and frustration.
The heart of a book isn’t likely apparent until you’ve begun writing. It shows itself in the parts that please you most, in the places where you find yourself lingering, in the areas where the language soars. It’s what excites you about the project, what keeps you going back to it day after day. If you have multiple books in you, the heart of one will often form itself in another, whether you intend it or not. That’s because the heart is what matters to you—and to your readers.
In school, we don’t learn to search for the heart of a book; we learn look for its topic and themes, which are far more cerebral. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? It’s about a raft trip down the Mississippi: that’s the topic answer. It’s about innocence and experience, freedom, coming of age, friendship: those are theme answers, intuited after the fact, Big Ideas to be outlined and proven.
The beat of the book’s heart can’t be dissected, only felt: the lure of a wide, muddy river; the banter of boys; the fool’s play of pretension.
Did Twain know the heart of his book? Perhaps not. Halfway through, he stopped writing, and when he picked up again, the second half was noticeably less heartfelt than the first.
What’s your book about? It’s a question worth asking. The answers can lead you all the way to its heart.