Sunday, February 3, 2013

Head, Heart, Gut

Every story I can think of appeals to the head, heart or gut. Whatever the genre, it comes down to one of these three.

Stories from the Head 

These are plot-driven. We, as readers, are supposed to figure something out. We are not deeply connected to the characters. We are committed to understanding why or who or what.

Mysteries often fall into this category. Think of Agatha Christie. When a character is murdered in an Agatha Christie novel, we do not grieve. Nor do we root for one character or another (except possibly, the detective--Hercule Poirot or Mrs. Marple, for example.)

The author keeps us at a distance from the characters so that we cannot get close enough to care for them deeply. We see them through the eyes of an omniscient narrator or another character who does not know them well enough to empathize with them. Often the narrator uses irony or some form of humor to preserve our distance and make them less important. Sometimes we are encouraged to look down on one or more of the characters.

Stories from the Heart

These are the stories that touch us. They are often inspirational and leave us feeling better about ourselves and the human race. They can be tales of adversity overcome; stories in which love ennobles, or even saves, the characters; or tales of spiritual journeys where the main character(s) experiences a long process of self-discovery.

 "The Accidental Tourist" by Anne Tyler is an example of an excellent novel of this type.

Our task in this type of story is to identify with the dilemma, conflict, or challenge faced by the main character; to care that he struggles with issue(s) in his life; and to recognize the resolution of the story as the best possible outcome.

The author brings us in close to the characters in this type of story. We are meant to like them. He does not give them unforgiveable character defects. Rather, he creates defects which hinder the characters from living a full, rich life. He asks us to care that the characters are hampered in this way and to hope they can overcome their difficulties. We rejoice when the resolution brings the characters happiness and fulfillment.

After all, they are just like us.

Stories from the Gut

Stories from the gut are visceral, even painful. We are brought so close to the characters, we wince when they get hurt, our hearts pound at the unexpected noise outside their door, and our heads ache with hangover after they've spent a night at the bar. These stories hit us at a physical, as well as an emotional, level.

Many horror stories are written from the gut. So are a certain type of crime novel. James Ellroy's novels are examples. So are Michael Connelly's.  "The Red Badge of Courage" is an early example of a novel from the gut.

In these stories, the main character is often neither noble nor admirable. Though the protagonist is the ostensible "good guy" he is often as flawed as any villains who may appear in the piece. If he has a saving grace it is his sense of integrity or his commitment to the truth. But he is not necessarily a good citizen, husband/lover or father. He is often a loner incapable of forming close relationships.

We are forced to admit our connection to him because the author forces us share his breathing, his very heartbeat, as well as his thoughts and emotions. We share this intimacy with him is in spite of ourselves. The resolution may be less than satisfactory, but at least the protagonist survives to bring the story to its conclusion.

These are usually stories about survival. Our interest is less about the rights and wrongs of the situation than it is about whether the protagonist will survive the ordeal he is forced to endure. It is not whether he will come out a better person but whether he will come out at all.


So these are three spaces from which we can write a story--the intellect with its sense of curiosity and problem-solving ability; the softer emotions associated with love, compassion and the desire to become better; or the baser instincts associated with brute survival where fear is the dominant emotion and the goal is to win in the end.

Which is better? Which type of story makes us the better writer?

As always, the answer depends on our intention. Each type of story demands that we dip into our writer's bag of tricks and use the tools and skills best suited to the occasion. Usually we begin by writing one type of story and hone the skills needed to tell it effectively.

 If we're lucky and motivated, we'll move on to one or both of the other types, practicing with it until we've mastered the skills needed.

Our best outcome is to develop so many tricks of the trade that we can write any type of story that we feel called upon to tell.

Think of Joyce Carol Oates as an example of a writer who has written in virtually every genre with great skill and facility.

In the end, head, heart and gut must all be available to us as writers.


  1. This was a great post, Lee! Makes me b want to rethink my favorite stories and see what I am most drawn to.

  2. Great post. I think I am always more drawn to stories from the head but love a good story from the heart.