Digging Deeper – Identifying the Core Emotion, by Virginia Law Manning


Last month my blog post gave the basics of becoming a good critique partner. Now let’s dig deeper by,

Identifying the Core Emotion

The core emotion, or core motivator, of a story is its heart. It’s the ‘why.’ The driving force that makes us care. The universal truth that helps us, as readers, empathize with the main character.

In order to identify the core emotion, agent Heather Alexander suggests drilling down past the details of the story to the heart by asking “why” until you reach the story’s core.

Let’s identify the core motivator in Maurice Sendak’s WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE.


Begin your analysis by asking:

What’s the story about?

It’s about a boy Max who sails off to a land of wild beasts where he becomes King.

Why does he sail off?

Because he’s mad at his mother.

Why is he mad at his mother?

Because he didn’t think it was fair that she sent him to his room.

What didn’t he think it was fair?

Because he wants to be able to do what he wants.


Because everyone wants to have power in their lives, even children.


And there we have it, this story is about power. Max wants to have control his life. Don’t we all? Who wants to feel powerless? Not me.

Your question chain might take you on a different path. You might have asked “Why did he become king of the beasts?” But that’s OK because if the story is tightly written, you’ll end up in the same spot. If however, the story meanders or is just a chronology of events, it may be difficult to find the core motivator.

If you’re not connecting with a story and find yourself asking ‘who cares,’ see if you can identify the core motivator. If you have trouble, run through this exercise live during your critique session. Have two readers perform the Q&A, while the author listens. This way the author can see where the character’s motivation is vague.

In her KidLit College webinar, Heather Alexander confided that, as she reads manuscripts, she often wants to strip away plot to get to the core emotion. But that doesn’t mean you want the message to be obvious or the story preach-y. I find this is a common mistake of new authors. Most stories do have a message, but the best way to get there is to write a great story and let a universal truth be revealed. I hope this makes sense to you. When my mentor author-illustrator Barbara DiLorenzo explained it to me that way, a lightbulb went on in my head. I’m writing a picture book now and the story has changed dramatically over time but the core emotion has remained the same,

Everyone wants to feel special, especially on their birthday.

But when you read my story, I never say those words. I don’t even get close.

Understanding the core motivation will help you write and critique work because it’s the destination. The text of the story needs to get us there. After you’ve identified the core emotion, look for scenes that are detours—moving us in the wrong direction.  By eliminating these lines/scenes/chapters, we can add clarity to our work.

I hope you’ll let me know if you found this post helpful. If you leave a comment below, you’ll be entered to win a free online critique by me of up 10 pages of a manuscript. Normal submission formatting please. Last month’s winner was Jill Proctor. Jill, if you’re reading this, I sent you a private message on Facebook today.

Thank you for reading my post, and good luck on your journey!

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9 Responses to Digging Deeper – Identifying the Core Emotion, by Virginia Law Manning

  1. hmmmmm says:

    Thanks Virginia– great post. I loved that series of questions about WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE that you used for/in your example!

  2. Makes perfect sense. Never tell the moral of the story, show it!

  3. Jennifer Raudenbush says:

    Your article is so helpful that I just printed it out to keep in my file. I have been struggling with a manuscript, and now I know why. Back to the drawing board!

  4. great post! But you don’t have to enter me in your raffle since you already provide me with critiques:)

  5. Jennifer Raudenbush says:

    This article was so helpful to me that I printed it out for my files. I have been struggling with a manuscript, and now I know why. Back to the drawing board!

  6. Thanks for the helpful post, Virginia! I look forward to reading more from you!

  7. Brinton L Culp says:

    Definitely a helpful post–thank you! I will use this.

  8. Jennifer Raudenbush won the lottery this month! Jennifer, if you’re looking for some feedback on a manuscript, I’d be happy to critique the first 10-pages for you. No pressure, of course, it’s totally up to you. Either way, best of luck with your writing!

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