The Heart of a Story

“Your protagonist will lose faith in his belief system.” ~ PJ Reece

I have just read PJ Reece’s short ebook, Story Structure to Die For.

The book is a quick look at the centre of the hero’s journey. A hero faces a crisis and restores a new order in the face of chaos.

Reece shines his light on the psychological moment when the hero’s belief systems fall apart and the hero must change to move forward.

Looking at story from the perspective of psychological change in the hero reveals why writers must torture their characters and why there is a moment when all seems lost close to the climax of most compelling stories.

Writers must, in fact, torture their characters to drive them into the place where all seems lost. It is only by living in the darkness left when belief systems collapse that a person opens to the possibility of growing into something new.

Change depends on breaking down old habits, old structures, old ways of looking at the world. Without the dissolution of the old, there is not room for the new. But, human beings are notoriously hard to change. We will create elaborate schemes of self-deception to avoid revising our deep understandings of the world and our place in it.

For a story to appear pyschologically true, the protagonist must be pushed so hard that the collapse of limiting self-understandings in inevitable. If the protagonist is able to put things back together in some semblance of order, he or she is heroic; otherwise he or she is tragic. In either case, the story is the drive to the point of no return and what happens once the protagonist gets there.

Reece’s book is currently available free. At that price, it was worth my time. Reece has an annoying way of presenting this as some grand mystery revealed, which it isn’t. But, his analysis of the film “Moonstruck” provides a clear explanation of the point he is making and he discusses the psychological theory in an accessible way.

11 thoughts on “The Heart of a Story

  1. Patrick Ross says:

    Hi Kate,

    I’m a fan of PJ, in that he’s a valuable contributor to The Artist’s Road in the comments field (as you are). I saw his post along these lines the other day on Joe Bunting’s blog. Thanks for this useful review of his craft book. As to his overselling his insights, I find that in commercially published works as well, including by some of my favorite authors!


  2. Kate Arms-Roberts says:

    Finding the balance between the amount of hype necessary to get people to pay attention to you and overselling is really difficult.
    I found PJ’s book very clear and thought-provoking, but I was constantly seeing how it was a deepening of insights I had heard before rather than something completely new.
    His approach is centered in character arc rather than plot, which gives him a slighly different perspective, so I think what he has to say is a useful contribution to discussions of fiction-writing craft.

  3. […] Kate. Read her most recent post here. […]

  4. Great review. Your description of the hero’s journey sounds like my life. I’m so relieved I’ve mostly come through the “elaborate schemes of self-deception” and the collapse of my belief system and I’m on the part about letting in something new. Whew. Only took five decades.

    I’ve got several hero’s journeys books lying around that I haven’t read yet, so I was going to bypass this one, even though it’s free. But you’ve intrigued me with your mention of the author’s analysis of Moonstruck. Now I think I’ll try it. Thanks, Kate!

    • Kate Arms-Roberts says:


      Getting past self-deception is hard stuff. We really do put up a massive fight.
      There’s a reason that the hero’s journey is of mythological proportions.

      I am curious to know what you think of the book.


  5. this is exactly why my husband prefers not to read fiction! Can’t stand the torturing of the main character!

  6. So often, we hold back when it comes to dreaming up problems for our characters to confront: it’s as though we’re harming a friend. But we can’t hold back, can we? Good points about that in your post.


    • Kate Arms-Roberts says:

      Thank you.

      It can be hard, especially when we really like a character. But, we can’t hold back the problems if we want them to grow.

  7. […] that turning point is the place in my memories that I need to access in order to write about the descent into deep crisis that will push my protagonist into change. Share this:TwitterFacebookDiggEmailRedditPrintStumbleUponLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  8. pjreece says:

    Kate… only now, four months later, am I reading your blog post on my “heart of the story”. I’m interested in what you say because I too scratch my head occasionally, wondering why I’m beating this subject to death. You’re right, all writers know about the “Act II crisis”. So what am I on about? I’d appreciate your reading my latest blog post: “Why We Read (a theory)” and let me know if you glimpse any deeper reason why I’m so obsessed with this “mystical storyheart”. I’d like to chit-chat with you more later. Cheers. PJ

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