EVENTS Getting to the heart of your story

An online workshop with Vashti Hardy at the end of October 2020 got everyone focussed on finding the real heart and soul of a story. Report by Camilla Chester. Plus: three Scoobies give their feedback.

Having loved Brightstorm, I was excited to learn from Vashti about getting to the heart of my own work in progress (WIP).

The workshop began with a description of what we mean by heart or theme; an elusive, intangible concept akin to voice. Difficult to pin down but what all agents and editors are searching for. Vashti likened WIPs to tapestries, with the author trying to hold and weave all the threads together to create the perfect picture. 

She described heart/theme as the soul of the story and tasked us with exploring our own souls in a quest to discover what untold stories we have to tell. 'It’s tied up within your personality, what fascinates you about the world? What questions can you seek answers to through your own storytelling?’ she asked. Many themes are archetypes but Vashti explained that it was how you took the familiar and entwined it with character, plot and atmosphere, that made it feel fresh.

Vashti took character, plot and atmosphere in turn, asking a series of questions to pin down how each element serves the theme. For example: ‘Imagine a character is shining a torch on another character – what traits do they illuminate? What do each of your characters bring out in the other?’ When it came to plot Vashti suggested breaking our WIPs down into scenes and noting how each event relates to the theme. 

Another useful exercise was to write a blurb for our book, focusing on the heart of the story. Vashti asked us to think about how we could refine our theme to make it tighter. She concluded the workshop with a reminder to write from a place that is personal and unique to us as individuals. ‘The books with a strong heart will stay with you for a long time, maybe forever,’ she said.

For Vashti that book was Rebecca’s World by Terri Nation, which certainly explains her own amazingly vivid and terrifying, sugarcoated baddies.

A fabulous workshop by a fabulous writer who was generous with her time and knowledge. The combination of information and exercises left me buzzing with practical ways forward for my own WIP. Thank you!

So what did other Scoobies think?

Clare Brice: I thoroughly enjoyed Vashti's talk, I found it inspiring and very interesting. Her point about having a theme running through the story really made me think about my own writing and checking to see if the theme was consistent throughout my WIP. It has helped me in my recent writing to stay on track and not get sidelined with too many other plot ideas — although I love the idea of Vashti having a cupboard full of 'cut' characters! I was interested to hear about including what you are passionate about in your writing and threading your own likes through the tale. Vashti spoke about the heart and the hook of the story and I think that has helped me reassess my WIP and really focus on what I'm trying to say and what the overall picture I'm trying to build is.

Kate Rosevear: I really enjoyed Vashti’s event. I found her view that the theme/heart is rooted in human concerns, really useful, and it helped me to think about the theme in my own work in progress and how that differs from the plot. I also found her idea that the plot gives conflict, which enables the main character to engage with the theme, really interesting. Again, I’m definitely now applying this to my own writing, and it’s really helping with the development of my whole story.

Fran Price: Vashti’s workshop provided some wonderful tools to help explore the heart of a story. She stressed that the heart or theme has probably always been there, ‘right from the initial spark you had for your story.’

‘It’s why we write, because we have these burning questions we want to explore,’ Vashti said. Thinking about what is the driving force or burning question in my own story, I realised I wasn’t actually sure if I had one! Or maybe I had a better one? The event helped me bring all these questions and niggling doubts about my novel to the fore, where I could scrutinise each element that is key to the heart of a novel: character, plot and atmosphere (incorporating your setting, time and genre).

Structure is my Achilles heel, but Vashti’s grid was a simple technique for keeping a check on the unifying theme. List each scene down the left side and your thematic picture on the right. Go through scene by scene to check that each one is working with your thematic picture.

I also liked the blurb-writing exercise. Go to a website (Chicken House is good) and ‘borrow’ a blurb then replace it with your own story, using theirs as a skeleton. ‘You’re not copying, just using the structure to hang your own idea from,’ said Vashti. An excellent exercise for nailing the heart of your novel.

Thank you Vashti! And thanks to Debbie Edwards for organising!

*Screenshots of Vashti Hardy's workshop by Camilla Chester.


Camilla Chester is a dog-walking, SCBWI volunteer who writes mainly for middle-grade. You can find out more about Camilla and her books by visiting her website:


Fran Price is Events Editor for Words & Pictures, the online magazine for SCBWI-BI. Contact her at

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