Recently, Megan Mulry was Tweeting about core story, and I was intrigued. And frightened! But mostly intrigued. I’d circled around this concept of every author writing versions of the same book again and again — in a good way, as a sort of subconscious life project — but I’d never heard “core story” articulated as a concept that one could dig into. I’m happy to welcome Megan here to Wonkomance to talk about the core story concept and share some of the responses she got when she inquired among other writers.
The first time I heard the phrase “core story” was from Jayne Ann Krentz at the 2010 RWA Annual Conference in Orlando. I’ve pretty much been star struck by Krentz ever since I first started reading romance novels about six years ago. I came to romance relatively late in life, and Amanda Quick (aka JAK) and Judith McNaught were my meat and drink.
Now, looking back with a bit of perspective, I can see why these two in particular were so appealing: heroine driven narrative arcs, lots of hero/heroine dialogue, lots of conflict. After I’d read everything by McNaught and everything I could get my hands on by Quick/Krentz, I wanted to learn more about these writers and their writing philosophies.
That summer of 2010 was my professional beginning. I had a manuscript. I was going to start querying agents. (In other words, I was a mess.) Anyway, Jayne Ann Krentz was (and is!) everything I want to be professionally: prolific, dedicated, lighthearted, with the added bonus of snazzy red hair. I still look at my notes from that 2010 conference workshop for inspiration.
JAK said, “Know your core story. Archetype. Theme. Conflict. Those are the core elements for you.” Boom. Okay. Right. I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about. Who in the world is that self-aware? I certainly wasn’t. And it took about ten books and four novellas for me to firmly grasp what she was talking about and how it related to me.
A few months ago, I finally figured out my own core story. Whether I’m writing erotica, small town contemporary, historical, or women’s fiction, deep down I am always writing the same core story. I keep trying to think of an eloquent way to put it, but it really boils down to this:
Lover1: I love you and want to give you everything you ever wanted
Lover2: I want freedom
(Aka Twats and the people who love them)
Here’s another quote from JAK, this one from her Popular Romance Project interview:
“…the hero and the heroine overcome their problems not with social engineering and not with psychology, but with core heroic virtues. And they’re always the same: courage, determination, a sense of honor, integrity, and the ability to love. And that’s at the core of all of our heroic archetypes. Why does it continue to exist? Jayne’s theory of popular fiction evolution: it wouldn’t survive unless it served a real purpose for the survivability of our culture. And I believe that it’s in popular fiction that we preserve our society, our culture’s core values.”
Doesn’t that just make you feel warm all over? Courage. Determination. Honor. Integrity. Ability to love. (That last one is usually a major sticking point for at least one of my main characters.) I turned to some fellow authors and asked:
Do you know your core story yet? Do you tend to revisit one of the above core heroic virtues again and again? A recurring theme? A recurring conflict?
And here are the awesome answers:
“Lover #1: I’ll give you anything you want. Lover #2: I want freedom.” This is the conflict I always seem to end up with, no matter how wild the peripheral or external factors. Broken down into slightly smaller pieces, I think what “freedom” means here is some form of emotional independence. The character fears losing his or her quintessential self by subsuming it in another person. This can only be overcome by the character re-inventing their self-perception. They must grow from being somebody who sees themselves as only strong enough to stand alone, to somebody who sees themselves as strong enough to be a whole person even within the context of a shared life. I don’t know if it’s a heroic virtue to face the demon that is yourself being your own worst enemy, but that’s my conflict and I’m sticking to it.
I couldn’t possibly boil down my core story to archetype, theme, and conflict, but I think — with eleven books under my belt — that I’m starting to see that my core story is about characters learning how to get out of their own way. I’m interested in all the ways that people allow fear to steer their lives, and how love can be effective in providing motivation for people to move beyond fear to something like self-actualization. Which I guess means, in the terms you (Jayne) laid out, that they’re stories of quiet personal courage and determination motivated by love.
When I look at most of my books, over and over and over again, the same theme occurs in various ways. Hero or heroine: I am too damaged to love. I am unworthy of love. Then my other character needs to show them they are wrong on both counts. That’s the same journey I take and I never tire of it. After all, isn’t it the hardest thing in the world to be vulnerable and brave enough to love and be loved? Do we ever truly feel worthy?
My heroes: In nobly helping others, they hide their true selves.
My heroines: Don’t fit in, even when they look like they do.
My core story: The journey to truth is the journey to love.
I write in three different fictional landscapes: historical, contemporary and futuristic but my core story is always romantic-suspense. The relationship starts out as a classic marriage of convenience. The hero and heroine are forced into a partnership in order to survive the danger they face. The bond they form evolves into love.
—Jayne Ann Krentz
I write about the friendships that screw up perfectly good no-strings sex, and turn it into a foundation for forever.
—Mira Lyn Kelly
My core virtue: the courage to love in the face of failure. My core story: the grab for a second chance to make things right. In The Slightest Provocation I call it paying “the debt of honor we owe to our flawed, frightened, and deluded younger selves, to become the people we should have been.” In romance we still can become those people because in romance “there’s still time.”
Archetype: broken people (who are frequently high functioning – often the most broken among us cover it the best). Theme: reconciliation (internal, within families, sometimes within communities). Conflict: the self. I write about how the choices we make can slowly poison us or just as slowly nurture us, and how self-awareness may come with a price, but in the end, it’s worth paying. That’s part of the core story…you have to know what price you’re paying for your heart’s desire, and when it becomes too much. Fuck. I don’t know. You can quote me on that.
When I was a kid, my mother would always drag me to what I called “women finding themselves” movies. They were usually foreign films or period pieces where a lady living a “meh” sort of life embarked on some travel and when outside of her comfort zone, started to blossom. Then love happened. I think all of my novels follow this theme of “women finding themselves” and the love follows. One has to be right with herself before she can recognize Mr. Right. I also think my characters often want “Love and…” Both the heroes and heroines crave the love, but they also want to balance it with their passion for work or a stubborn insistence on some personal freedom, too. In other words…being true to the person their partner fell in love with in the first place.
My core story is typically about redemption, something like:
Lover1: I want to be good enough for you.
Lover2: You already are.
Lover1: *improves self anyway*
There’s generally lots of sex while all this is happening. Not sure if that’s part of the core story. But probably :)
I’m just now starting to see the outline of my core story. It goes something like this. “Someone who believes s/he is broken or lesser in the eyes of society learns to see him/herself as whole again.” When I think about my stories that work best, they fit this model most explicitly. The ones I’ve had more trouble with have veered further away.
Courage and determination tend to be my characters’ core virtues, but the ability to love is usually what they’re striving for, at some level.
My themes vary more – belonging, purpose, having faith in one’s self.
My characters’ inner conflicts often center around coming to terms with who they are so they can accept love from someone else. Their external conflicts are all over the map.
I think I’m a little early in my journey to identify a core story, but I can almost see it out of the corner of my eye if I squint. No matter what I’m writing, I’m always exploring identity. Mistaken, assumed, hidden, rejected. Masks, accidentally slipped or torn away. I muck around with characters who make terrible decisions because they either don’t know or don’t like who they are. I tend to write exposures of self as both acts of aggression and acts of love.
Thank you to all of the authors who took the time to contribute to this piece; I love to see how everyone processes these larger concepts in relation to their own work. I hope more writers will continue the conversation and comment below about their core stories. Thanks so much for having me here at Wonkomance!
Megan Mulry writes sexy, stylish, romantic fiction. Her first book, A Royal Pain, was an NPR Best Book of 2012 and USA Today bestseller. Before discovering her passion for romance novels, she worked in magazine publishing and finance. After many years in New York, Boston, London, and Chicago, she now lives with her husband and children in Florida. Her third novel in the Unruly Royals series, In Love Again, releases November 29.