Discovering the Heart of the Story: Writing Challenge!

Megan Miranda writing challengeMegan Miranda is the author of Fracture and Hysteria (which you can start reading on Figment). Before she was a writer, she was an award-winning scientist and her passion for science definitely influences her writing.

At Figment, we love to hear from writers about how and why they write. And of course, we were thrilled when Megan wanted to talk with us about her story development process. Check out her thoughts below and stay tuned for a writing challenge! Five lucky Figs will see their stories on the Figment homepage!


So, I have a confession. I am not very good at coming up with the Big Idea of my books right away. Not until I’ve written a good chunk of the story. Which, I know, is kind of counterproductive, because if I don’t know the story, then how am I writing said story? It’s kind of a Catch-22.

But it’s also my process.

I think there are two types of writers: Those who start with the idea; and those who start with anything else. I am of the anything else variety. I usually see my character first. So the goal, for me, is to get to know my characters and to discover the heart of their story. The trick is, I can only discover the heart of the story through writing.

But looking back at the notebooks I keep beside my computer with each new project I’m writing, I think I can find a trend . . . Truth be told, there is a process.

Megan Miranda's desk

(My writing space: This is it in real time. Right now. Laptop. Notebook. Coffee. Sticky notes. Pens. A calculator? I have no idea why it’s there. I also want to paint the walls a color I like, but I also want to write a book. So the green stays for now.)

STEP 1: Find an opening sentence with potential.

This is perhaps the single most useful thing for my process. It is a place to start, both literally and figuratively.

Both Fracture and Hysteria began with a writing prompt I gave myself. A sentence I thought would be a good opener, something that seemed surprising. Something unexpected, or open-ended. Both sentences gave me the opportunity to ask questions. Remember, once you figure out what you’re writing, you can always go back and change it later

Surprisingly, in Fracture and Hysteria, both of those writing prompts remained as the first lines of the book.

For Fracture, that writing prompt was: “The first time I died, I didn’t see God.”

And for Hysteria: “My mother hid the knife block.”

(Actually, if I’m remembering correctly, that’s not entirely true. The first sentence of Hysteria was more generic at first, more open-ended: “Someone hid the knife block.” But I quickly changed it, about a paragraph in, once I realized what was happening.)

Hopefully, your opening sentence gives you a lot of potential for questions:

1. Who is speaking to us, and why are they telling us this? Why is this significant?
2. Why is this happening? (Why did her mother hide the knives? From the main character? From herself?)
3. What’s happening in that moment?

See where your writing prompt takes you. If you don’t like where it takes you, start again. No worries.

STEP 2: Ask questions to find the heart of the story.

During this stage of writing Hysteria, I discovered that my main character had done a Very Bad Thing (hence the hiding of the knives), but wasn’t going to be charged for a murder (because it was ruled self-defense) and was now being haunted by something . . . er, yes, a very vague something . . .

Remember that notebook on the side of the desk? It’s full of questions. Seriously. I went back through my first pages and asked myself lots of questions. Here are a few from my Hysteria notebook. (Disclaimer: My handwriting is horrible. Apologies!)

Megan Miranda's writing notebook

(The big questions that led to the heart of Hysteria, in my opinion)

And then? I try to answer them.

Megan Miranda's writing notebook

(Some definitions of the word “haunt” . . . which led to some more questions . . .)

Eventually, I hit on some key points. Which I then underline or star or circle in lots of colors and sometimes write “BAM!” next to. I can’t believe I’m posting these.

Megan Miranda's writing notebook

(For me, this is how I find themes, and the heart of the story, and after this, I feel like I’m ready. Like I have a Story.)

STEP 3: Pick something to ground your story.

For me, this is often a quote, or a song. Something that helps me remember the tone, or the type of story I’m trying to write. Something that grounds me every time I feel myself starting to veer away from the original idea.

I found that moment in my notebook as well:

That EAP = Edgar Allan Poe. And if you’re having trouble deciphering my horrific handwriting, it says, “It is the beating of his hideous heart,” which is the line at the end of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and I’d say there’s a good bit of inspiration from that in Hysteria as well. Anytime I’d feel like I lost my hold on the story, I’d go back to this, read it, and remember the feeling it evokes in me—and then I’d channel it.

STEP 4: Write! Write your butt off!

You might notice that I have yet to mention discovering a plot, and you’d be correct. And that’s okay. I’ve come to accept that I won’t see the big plot until a little while later. Eventually, like a draft or so later, I do. And then I break out the colored pens and the notebook again, and it’s slightly less messy (but only slightly).

Megan Miranda's writing notebook

(This is chapter 1 of Hysteria, summarized as succinctly as possible, with a color for each element in play.)

I like to see each thread in a different color—it helps me see which elements are in play in each chapter, if there’s too much of something, not enough of another, if I’m dropping plot lines, etc.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

For discovering the heart of the story (which, for me, is discovering the Story), this is my process:

  • An opening with potential
  • Try to find the heart of the story by asking—and answering—lots of questions
  • Set a quote or a song (or anything else you find inspiring) for tone
  • WRITE!

I know each writer has his or her own process, and hopefully reading through the different ways people approach their books will help you find your own process that works for you!

Hysteria by Megan MirandaWriting Challenge:

Take a page from Megan Miranda’s writing notebook and try Step 1 of her book-writing process. In 250 words or fewer, write an opening sentence and then answer her three questions:

1. Who is speaking to us, and why are they telling us this? Why is this significant?
2. Why is this happening? (Why did her mother hide the knives? From the main character? From herself?)
3. What’s happening in that moment?

Tag your writing SentenceChallenge. You have until Monday, March 4 at 11:59 p.m. ET to enter the writing challenge. Figment editors will read all the entries and choose five to be featured on the Figment homepage.

*Note: The correct tag for this contest is SentenceChallenge (2 Ls not 3), but we will accept SentenceChalllenge tags as well.

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22 thoughts on “Discovering the Heart of the Story: Writing Challenge!

  1. By the way, I LIVE for this kind of writing! Once or twice I’ll get the “Big Idea” type of thing going, but most of my stories start this way. 😀

    Finally, a contest I can get really excited about!

  2. Okay, the rules are confusingly worded:
    “In 250 words or fewer, write an opening sentence and then answer her three questions:”
    Are the answers to the questions included in the word count, or are the questions not to be directly answered, but just elements to address in writing the opening scene? Or are they to be tacked on at the end of the opening scene, not counted in the word count?

    This is important to have cleared up before an entry can be written, so please don’t just tell me to refer to the rules, because I have a question regarding the rules.

    • Katie-

      The challenge is to write an opening sentence, not scene, and to answer the questions. Your entire Figment writing (with the opening line and the answers) should be 250 words or fewer. Please let me know if I can help with anything else.


  3. This seems like a really good process and obviously it works for the author since she’s published!! I am not too sure how well thinking of the best first line right off the bat would work for me though, but everyone’s different. I definitely like the idea of finding the heart of the story AFTER you’ve written some because the problem for me has been that if I can’t think of some deep theme/meaning immediately then I give up even though I really like the characters or something.

  4. when you say “Take a page from Megan Miranda’s writing notebook” do you actually mean use one of the pics posted up there?

  5. thank you 🙂
    i don’t know where to say this but, i am having trouble logging in to my account. When i try, it says “account is not active”. I actually do have an account and it is also confirmed.

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