How to write a book · Plots · Writer basics 101

Your story needs two hearts

heartsStories need two hearts. I’m going to call them the warm heart and the dark heart.

The warm heart is the bond we feel with the central characters. It is the pleasure of spending time in their company. I hesitate to call it liking; it may not be so simple. Our attachment may be to just one person and their flaws and troubles, or it may be to a web of relationships. It is affection, but rough-edged. It is warm, but it might not be cuddly. It’s push and pull, trouble and strife, idiocies and idiosyncrasies. But it is where the reader feels at home.

And then there is the dark heart. The dark heart is jeopardy. The shadow at the end of the alleyway. The characters may have other problems in the story. They may fight miscellaneous foes. But the dark heart is an ultimate disturbance that will demand a day of reckoning.

Two long-running TV shows illustrate this in action. Fringe has both hearts. The central characters form a story family. Some of them are bonded by filial ties: the father, Walter; the son, Peter. There’s Olivia, the FBI agent who becomes Peter’s lover. There’s Astrid, a lab assistant sidekick who becomes a close friend. They are the warm heart of the show; the humans who have real and complex relationships and sally forth to do battle. And Fringe has its dark heart. The characters are on borrowed time; every day brings them closer to a confrontation they cannot escape.

One heart down

By contrast, Doctor Who, whose title character actually has two hearts, only has one of them working.

The story’s warm heart is in good shape. The Doctor and his TARDIS companion always have a vibrant relationship that brings us back week after week. We also get drop-ins from the extended story family: the Doctor’s wife; the occasional friendly alien he befriended while saving them. Previous companions are also available. This creates a galaxy family bonded by experience and affection.

The warm heart beats strongly. But the dark heart does not.

Now that might seem like nonsense. Doctor Who is all about getting into danger and fighting monsters, right? But they don’t treat these as seriously as they treat the character universe.

The threats are often negligible. Too often, the Doctor wins with a gadget, some fast-talking, an asspull or a vague wave of the omnitalented sonic screwdriver. He never has to raise his game to win. And the scriptwriters frequently bend the rules of their own show – thus disrespecting their own universe.

Although each series has an overall arc, which is where the dark heart should be beating its dreadful rhythm, it is false. It never produces a confrontation that will really put the Doctor on his mettle, or that could credibly destroy him. Even if the writers trick it up to look like that, he’s usually freed in one bound, and does not have to go through the wringer.

Because the writers don’t make us believe in the dark heart, the warm heart loses some of its power. You could say this demonstrates that we need the story to be taken as seriously as the characters are. Controversial.

fringeTwo hearts beat as one

Fringe goes one step further to genius. Here is why: the warm heart created the dark heart. Walter Bishop committed a crime that started an epic war. His son died, and so he opened a wormhole to a parallel universe and stole him back. The flawed warm heart let the dark heart in.

In a great story, the warm heart and the dark heart pump each other with life. The dark heart makes the warm heart more precious. And the warm heart makes the dark heart more terrible.

Thanks for the hearts pic Joselito Tagarao and the Fringe pic hherbzilla

Let’s discuss some stories – film, TV or prose – with warm and dark hearts. Buffy, anyone?

18 thoughts on “Your story needs two hearts

  1. The warm heart of Breaking Bad is Jesse and his unsentimentalized but important relationship with Walt. The dark heart is Walt himself.

    In The Shield, the warm heart I guess is Dutch and Claudette. Maybe that’s too simplistic – there is warmth of a kind in the “family” of the Strike Team. As you say, these “warm” hearts don’t have to be cuddly.

    Buffy I love, but Joss’s weakness is his dark hearts. Often seems like he’s too nice a guy to create truly nasty villains, so his best dark hearts are the non-personified ones (eg “The Body”).

    No need to expatiate the analysis for Harry Potter, is there..?

    The two blood supplies must be connected. Without the warmth, what does the dark have to threaten? Without the dark heart, how is the warm heart tested?

    1. Breaking Bad… of course. There is such a sense of warmth in that show. Not just with the Jesse relationship, but Walt’s own family. I love that idea that Walt himself is the dark heart. When we do analyses like this we can see how elegant and clever that show is.
      And The Shield. A tumultuous dark heart there, because I’m sure it has to include the Strike Team. Especially Shane. What’s that wonderful line Vic said once about brothers fighting from time to time? It’s protective, that line. It speaks of a sacred unit.

  2. Excellent thoughts! I have to make sure my WIP’s dark heart truly challenges and makes a day of reckoning for my MC. I just discovered Fringe on Netflix; my mom got us watching it. So I can totally see where you’re coming from. Plus I just like shows with the twist of weird.

    I suppose for an example–Star Wars (first/original trilogy). There are definite bonds and interpersonal relationships that make for intriguing viewing, and yet there’s an ultimate showdown of evil and challenge for the “good guys.”

    1. PS–by the first trilogy I mean episodes 4-6, the ones that came out in the 1980s. Part of the problem with Episode 1 is part of the warm heart is missing and not fully developed. It was mostly special effects and Jar-Jar flopping around.

  3. It’s all about balance, isn’t it? But “properly balanced” doesn’t necessarily mean “evenly balanced.” The mix depends upon your goals for the story. Buffy started off with a bias toward the warm heart, but by the end, the dark heart had taken the lead. I hated that transition. At one point (I think it was season 6), the show was so dark and depressing that my wife and I nearly stopped watching it.

    Similarly, the tone of Serenity was like a slap in the face compared with Firefly. It was like Whedon decided to say, “Take that! Now maybe now you’ll stop whining for more.” He wrote a space horror movie as a wrap-up to a space western TV show.

    I don’t think there’s any “right” balance of warm and dark heart. I do believe that writers should use both of them deliberately to serve the goals of the story. I also believe genre gives you guidelines for how to orchestrate them.

    1. Hi Daniel! Actually, I rather liked it when Buffy got darker, but perhaps that reflects my twisted soul.
      That’s an interesting point about genre: yes, the expectations definitely guide you to balance these story elements. In romance, for instance, you couldn’t let the dark heart get too inky because the characters must end up together. On the other hand, a threat of some sort is still needed (dark heart) that will make the happy resolution a challenge.

  4. The first example that came to my mind was Spooks – one of the few places where the dark heart is taken seriously because no one was ever safe so the jeopardy was always real – very very few stories have that – they either move inevitably to a negative conclusion, or the protagonists are never really in danger because we know they have to emerge. The best get over that latter by letting characters emerge but not unscathed.

    The very best TV example I can think of is Cracker (closely followed by anything else ever written by Jimmy McGovern, the UK’s finest living writer by a country mile). Fitz’s network of relationships are a mighty beating heart, but the dark heart surrounding each. “To Be a Somebody” – the best TV story ever told that also made a star of Robert Carlisle – established with Bilborough’s death and then the shocking ending that nothing was sacred. And Bilborough’s death then hung over much of the remaining storylines like a storm we knew was coming but had no idea how badly – ultimately we got Penhaligan’s rape and then episodes later (unlike Dr Who’s writers McGovern knows how to weave the long and short term) Beck’s suicide. Perfect in every way

    1. Hi Dan!
      Gosh yes, Spooks did that, didn’t it? I only saw the first season, but remember some shocking plot turns. As you say, it serves to demonstrate that no one is safe and the story isn’t cosy. There’s a danger with main characters that we assume they will always be okay, which neuters the danger.

      And Cracker! You must be a mind-reader. Before I fired up the computer to see who’d visited this post, I’d been thinking about Cracker, especially that first season. I don’t usually go for cop shows, but found Cracker was addictive – because of this balance. They were warm, humorous, and rather troubled. I was utterly shocked when they killed Bilborough, especially when the then-unknown Christopher Ecclestone had such obvious star quality. By the natural order of TV he should have been on the show for ever.

  5. You’ve made me examine my forthcoming childhood memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets the Glittering World with new eyes through this language. I’m telling the story of a little girl who wants to be big; who is plain but is fascinated by fancy. The warm heart beats openly as I take a romp through the fifties and sixties and through the simple life of farm-church-school.

    The dark heart (did you deliberately avoid the usual opposites of warm/cold, light/dark?) is harder to detect. It has to do with the subject of pride, materialism, and false self, the temptations the little girl is prone to. The fate of her immortal soul weighs in the balance. So does the highest definition of what it means to be big. She could easily leave the plain life without ever benefiting from its wisdom. Will she?

    Thanks for helping me think through the story in a new way as I get ready to do book talks and author talks in the fall!

    1. Shirley, what a lovely comment. I like your description of your memoir in these terms and it’s interesting to see how my flight of fancy has helped you re-envision an aspect of yours. Lovely contrasts there.

      And yes, I did deliberately avoid the obvious opposites. Not consciously; the ideas came into my head like that and I liked the dissonance. I did a similar thing in my novel with the names of the seasons in the Future part of my MC’s life. I had the Red Season, the Tumbling Season and something else which I can’t currently remember off the top of my head. It pleased me in an organic way, and felt more natural than naming all the seasons uniformly.

      Good luck with your book – and the author talks.

  6. I’m currently reading My People’s Waltz, a collection of short stories by Dale Ray Phillips. The central family finds love and connection to each other and their landscapes while navigatin the dark hearts of racism, mental illness, adultery and more. Beautiful stories with each of the hearts fueling the other.

  7. Oooh, a very interesting concept between warm hearts and dark hearts. I loved the unique vision of this post! I’m going to have to ponder on this one for awhile!

  8. Hi, Roz & all. I’m a film *freak* and two of my favourite films of all time are black comedies… the first, GHOST DOG: WAY OF THE SAMURAI, is very black but very very funny too. Its warm heart is the Zen Buddhist lifestyle the protagonist, played by a very yummy Forest Whittaker, follows to the letter, as well as his friendships with an immigrant ice cream seller and a young girl. Its dark heart ranges from the Mafioso, shown to be either thick or racist (though there are a brill scenes where one of them does a rap, and another impersonates a Native American chief), to the revenge theme they set in motion by not being honourable. (You’ve reminded me it’s time to watch it again – thank you.)

    Also KEEPING MUM. Warm heart: mother who would do anything, and I mean anything, for her daughter; whatever the problem, there’s always a way through. After all, Cod moves in mysterious ways ;o) Dark heart? Ah, but if you haven’t seen it, that would be spoiling things. Wonderful , wonderful, wonderful. Clever script aided and abetted by some of the best actors Britain can buy. Wodehouse meets Patricia Highsmith.

  9. Reblogged this on Consuelo Roland, Writer and commented:
    I love this flight of imagination… another way of talking about the chiaroscuro effect – the meshing together of light and dark that makes for a deeply satisfying reading experience. Roz’s idea gives me a different more architectural perspective that suggests a 3D way of walking around within the story.

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