You Need to Write the Story That Tears Your Heart Out (Here’s Why)

“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.”— Virginia WoolfClick To Tweet

Have you ever read a story grabs you by the heartstrings and refuses to let go?

A story that changes something deep inside you and leaves you breathless with awe?

Somehow, the writer was able to crawl into your mind, lead you into her world, and make you care so much about her characters that you laughed with them, cried with them, and cared about their lives almost more than you cared about your own.

How did she do that? you think to yourself, as you close the book reverently. How was she able to reach into my chest and break my heart?

More importantly, you wonder, how can I do that to my readers?

The answer to both questions is simple:

Writers touch readers’ hearts by tearing out their own hearts.

The Best Stories are Love Stories

“The one thing we can never get enough of is love. And the one thing we never give enough is love.” — Henry MillerClick To Tweet

Growing up, I was exposed to my fair share of romantic stories. (It’s almost impossible not to, if you’ve been raised on Disney movies as I have).

But the one that made the deepest impression on me was Nicholas Sparks’ A Walk to Remember. That book won me so completely I immediately embarked on a quest to read as many of Sparks’ novels as I could get my hands on.

But the results were disappointing.

NONE of Sparks’ other novels (or any other novel before or since) touched me the way Walk to Remember did. There was something extra special about this story, though at first I couldn’t tell what it was.


For those unfamiliar with Sparks’ famous novel (spoiler alert!), A Walk to Rememberis about a self-centered and aimless North Carolina teenager who falls in love with the angelic yet plain “girl next door” after ignoring her for almost their entire lives.

But just as Landon begins to truly recognize and fall for Jamie’s selfless spirit and loving heart, he receives devastating news: Jamie is dying of leukemia and there’s nothing anyone can do to help her.

As Jamie deteriorates, Landon learns what it really means to love, sacrificing what he once held dear to grant Jamie’s last wish.

Sounds rather melodramatic, doesn’t it?

These dying-heroine stories have been done to death (pardon the pun), and are often sickeningly cheesy. Yet Sparks brings Jamie and Landon’s story to life with a skillful hand and no hint of curdled cream.

How?

The answer revealed itself when I started digging into the history behind Walk to Remember.

The reason why Sparks was able to create such emotional power in his novel is because A Walk to Remember is based on a true story:

Before Sparks’ sister Dana died of brain cancer at the age of 33, her husband married her, knowing full well that she was going to die. Their story was the one that inspired A Walk to Remember.

Nicholas Sparks loved his only sister dearly, and her suffering tore at him. And A Walk to Remember is, in part (or in whole?) a tribute to her.

No doubt remembering Dana through Landon and Jamie’s story was painful for Sparks. But watching his beloved sister’s slow death and her husband’s selfless love obviously touched Sparks to his core, and that power transferred into his writing.

Sparks turned his grief into art, and by allowing himself to be vulnerable with his readers, he created a timeless, powerful story that has touched hearts around the world.

Writing to Combat Loneliness

We read to know we’re not alone, screenwriter William Nicholson once wrote.

And when do we feel the most alone?

When we are in pain. When our hearts are bleeding. When we are suffering.

That’s why it is the writer’s job to dig deep, be brave, and bring those painful experiences to the surface. Stories bring people together, change people’s perspectives, and even in some instances, save lives…

But only when writers are willing to tear their hearts out and show it to their readers:

Look at my heart: it is bleeding and battered and broken, just like yours. You are not alone. We’re together in this.

It is the best — and perhaps only — way to connect so deeply with readers that they will never forget you or your story.

How to Write Stories That Touch Readers’ Hearts

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” — Robert FrostClick To Tweet

A writing teacher once advised me to “write the stuff that makes you want to vomit.”

What he meant was, the best writing is that which makes you so vulnerable you almost feel sick.

It’s a simple and effective piece of advice, but not so easy to do.

Nobody likes feeling vulnerable. We all fear critics and trolls. We fear the damage they could do to our sensitive egos.

Yet there’s no way around it: When you tear your heart out for your readers, there is a chance that you will get hurt.

So the best writers have learned to be brave.

They have learned to tell their darkest stories — in memoirs, novels, articles, and short stories — the stories that caused them the most pain, in order to create stories worth reading.

But how?

1. Practice Being Brave

Jia Jiang, of rejectiontherapy.com, became famous for his Ted Talk, “What I Learned From 100 Days of Rejection,” detailing how he spent three months deliberately trying to get people to say “no” to him.

In the end, he learned that rejection wasn’t as scary as he’d thought, that people aren’t as mean as he feared, and that sometimes you really only have to ask in order to get what you want.

Likewise, you can practice being vulnerable — either by doing what Jia Jiang did, or by starting with something slightly less scary and working your way up. For instance…

2. Make a List

Make a list of painful, vulnerable experiences in your journal. Include your deepest, darkest secrets. Arrange them in order from least to most painful and practice writing a little about each one.

You can write it memoir-style or fictionalize it, using made-up characters to represent you and the other people involved.

At this point, no one needs to read any of it. Write it in a journal and burn it later, if you want to. The idea is just to get your brain used to writing vulnerably.

3. Share

Find a trusted friend and share one of your “vulnerable stories” with him or her.

If that’s too hard for you, make up an online persona and share your story with a stranger or two on a site like Medium or Fictionpress or any of the other hundreds of writing-sharing sites out there.

Alternatively, challenge yourself to post your story on your blog for at least 24 hours before locking it. Just get yourself used to the idea of putting your story out there, even if it’s not forever.

Changing the World, One Heart at a Time

“You can make anything by writing.” — CS LewisClick To Tweet

I bet you didn’t become a writer just because you like putting words on paper.

No, you became a writer because you want to be read. You want your writing to help people, reach people, change people. But you can’t do that unless you first touch their hearts.

Becoming a writer who touches people’s hearts isn’t easy — not just because it’s technically challenging, but because it’s emotionally challenging.

But as the well known Douglas Malloch poem reminds us,

Good timber does not grow with ease. The stronger wind, the stronger trees The further the sky, the greater length, The more the storm, the more the strength.Click To Tweet

It is the same with you and your work.

You may have to fight the inner demons of fear and shame and insecurity to develop the ability to show your heart in your writing. But when you succeed, you will become the greatest thing a writer can be:

Someone whose work truly makes a difference in a reader’s life.


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