I first encountered the concept of what I have taken to calling “Heart Quotes” from Stephen King.
In his engaging treatise on the horror genre, Danse Macabre, said that if he had to reduce his writings to one sentence he would pick a line from ‘salem’s Lot.
“Understand death? Mark Petrie thought. Sure. Death is when the monsters get you.”
I knew instantly what he meant. It wasn’t necessarily the best line, or a critical part of the story, it was the line that summed up what he was trying to say through the medium of fiction.
In a poetic terms a heart quote is the statement of the conceit, the extended metaphor that serves as the framework of a poem. In William Carlos William’s “This Is Just To Say” the narrator offers an insincere apology for having eaten plums, but the poem isn’t really about plums at all, it is a snapshot of a relationship.
In my own work, I’m not aware of the heart quote while I’m writing it. It’s not something that I set out to do. When I’m writing I can’t be worrying about the metaphors or the subtext or the archetypes represented by my characters, I have to shove all that to the back of my head and concentrate on the guy with the electric frog gun.
I have to get into the head of my narrator, and in his head the kraken isn’t a representation of the alienating effects of the aging process, it’s a giant freakin’ squid that’s going to eat him if he doesn’t do something about it.
Usually, I don’t know what I’m really writing about until I’m done and have the luxury of going back and rereading it. I’m not sure if that’s a side effect of being primarily a poet or a side effect of being insane. Or maybe all writers are like that.
The point is that a heart quote isn’t deliberate. It’s not something you do, it’s something that become aware of having done. Much like the Day Of the Yuga, no one can know when it dawns, only when it has passed.
I don’t think that every novel has one, or needs one. Some have several. I am rereading Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren, and every time I read it (dozens of times so far) I find new lines that just blow me away and make me wonder why I never saw that before. That novel has more hearts than an earthworm.
I do think that it is important for writers to read their own work “from the outside”, to look at it as if they had never seen it before. To deconstruct it, if you will. Forget that you had anything to do with writing it, and look at it as a mystery, to ask yourself, what did this writer mean by putting down these words, in this order, what was she or he trying to say?
I won’t say that it’s easy to do (it’s not), just that it’s important.