Balancing head, gut and heart


As some of you know, I’m a Doctor Who fan. I was rewatching a two part episode from season 4 the other night (‘Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead’) and found myself trying to identify why I thought it was so good. I won’t waste space here with a lot of plot summary (which you can find here). Suffice to say that the Doctor and Donna are investigating the universe’s largest library where all the people have disappeared, when they run into an archaeological team which is promptly preyed upon by an alien monster which lives in shadows. The plot is complicated by the possibility that the library seems to be an illusion created by a disturbed child who is currently undergoing psychotherapy in an entirely different and more ordinary world, and by the fact that the head of the archaeological team claims to have intimate knowledge of the Doctor which he cannot remember.

It’s a complex story with a number of classic sci-fi elements: time travel, the uncertainty about what is and isn’t real, and a lethal, chilling monster which can strip flesh from bone in under a second. These facets are made more compelling by some genuinely creepy elements, such as the inspired idea that the voice relays in the space suits the humans wear retain the imprint of their wearer’s final moments, so the corpses continue to talk after death.

The whole is intricate and cleverly constructed, a great model of what the show—at its best—does so well. But what makes it great is finally neither the smart plotting nor the unsettling effects of the shadow killers. Rather, the core of the episode is the pervasive sense of mortality and loss. This is manifested both by the poignancy with which the deaths of minor characters are handled, and by Donna’s growing certainty that her time with the Doctor is running out. The time travelling archaeologist who seems to know so much about the Doctor’s future, doesn’t know her at all…

What I love about all this is the blend of the cerebral (the central mystery of what is going on), the visceral (the unnerving talking corpses and the shadow beasts), with the emotional (the pathos of real lives lost). The episode is fun, thrilling, scary, satisfying in the resolution of its core mystery, and–finally and most importantly–quite moving.

TV delivers this blend rarely, and I think that the two hour format of the double episode is an important aspect of the way this story weaves its various strands together without being heavy handed. Books, however, are well suited to precisely this kind of multi-level approach.

Yet all too often, I find myself reading novels which drop one or more of these crucial elements. Some are all action (viscera), some all romance, say, (heart), and some are stacked with cool ideas or plot intricacy (head).  But this focus on one or two elements of the three limits the range or type of the books’ success and, I suspect, their readership. For me, a level of creative inventiveness in all three areas carefully balanced produces the best results.

Finding that balance is not easy, however. In my case, I know that—perhaps because I am an academic—I want to rely too much on clever ideas. Though I am all too aware that clever books which lack the other elements often feel dry, abstract or otherwise alienating, I’m reticent where the emotional stuff is concerned. I also have to challenge myself to come up with the material that, when done well, produces a gut-level response in the reader. But I know that I need all three elements to make the story work.

As with other aspects of writing, it helps to know your own strengths, your own bias because they need counteracting. I wonder if my pro-intellect bias is actually fairly typical of sci-fi/fantasy writers who often seem to privilege thought and imagination over emotional weight. Whether that’s true or not, it’s helpful to be aware of your own proclivities and to have beta readers who you can trust to redress this and other imbalances, making you be more alert to those parts of the story which are less in your natural wheelhouse.

So, what do you think? How do you like the balance of head, gut and heart in your reading, and are your tastes as a reader reflected in your strengths as a writer? If not, how do you find the right balance?


27 comments to Balancing head, gut and heart

  • Look who else is up late! This is a great post for me because I just stopped editing for the evening because I got to a scene where I know exactly what I have to do to it. These are revisions Sarah and I have already talked about and I’m going to put them in place. But I stopped not because it’s late and I’m tired, but because it is pretty much a scene that has all three of the elements you mention and I know if I do it tonight I won’t do as good of a job, so I’ll do it when I’m fresh tomorrow. (This is only a slightly avoidance of the BIC).

    But the scene is a blend of all three things. In this case, magic is happening and so she’s going to have a painful, unexpected response (visceral), develop a new body part–wings (cerebral, part of the fantasy world), and physically suffer because her magic is fading and that’s killing her (visceral). The wings make her question her identity and who she wants to be (human, faerie, or both) and what she’s willing to risk for her magic (death) and that’s the emotional. And I don’t want it to be over the top. But considering moments, scenes, chapters, and the whole book into those three elements seems remarkably useful.

  • J. J. Hall

    This was a great post, especially because I love that episode (and River Song in general). I’ve been sitting here thinking about what you’ve said. It’s so true that so many authors only focus on one of these aspects. It almost feels like talking down to the reader because in reality, you can’t really have one without the other two, at least not and still have a good book. Personally, I try to have all three of these aspects (and more) in every scene I write. Though, of course, one usually takes the focus I always remember that without heart, this head scene is dull. Without head, this heart scene is immature. And so on. If someone is professing their undying love (heart), I need my reader to know that this person has all the doubts that come with humanity, even doubts about their own love (head). That’s not really what you meant by head, but hey. It’s late, and I should be writing! 🙂

  • Pea,
    glad to see I’m not the only insomniac in the group. Glad you think this trifold awareness might be helpful. It is for me because it keeps me vigilant with regard to stuff that might otherwise slide by, and I think that awareness pushes me to work other writerly muscles that, in the long term, makes me better. I hope so, anyway.

    agreed. I particularly get antsy with action-heavy books that start to read like screenplays: lots of running about and shouting but no one and nothing to actually care about. These days (as my sense of my free time seems to get ever tighter), I tend to put them aside and look for something else. Re. River Song, I liked this first introduction of her, and liked where the larger story line eventually took her, but there was a spell in the middle there when I found her knowledge of things the audience didn’t understand annoying, even smug. Always dangerous to have a character who knows that much and doesn’t share it in a story, I think.

  • This post has me thinking- this is why I adore Sherlock (on BBC originally and now on PBS). To replicate this in the written word is challenging. Great post!

  • mudepoz

    Sorry, you had me at guts and viscera.

  • You do need all three and I think I’m pretty happy with my works in that regard, even in my screenplays. 😉 However, one of the things I’ve noticed as I’ve been writing for indie film, and it’s something another friend blogged about after watching Prometheus, is that there seems this prevalence to want things now, now, now, at the speed of light, instant action, and I don’t tend to write that way. Yes, I work to hook a reader/viewer early on and I do throw plenty of action in there, but there’s also a need to develop the characters and give you a chance to care about them. As many people didn’t like Prometheus due to its pacing (think Alien pacing, not Aliens), my friend posited that it was because people nowadays want in-your-face, 140-character chunks, dump it on me and don’t hold the gore immediacy. I’ve seen this a LOT writing for film, as scripts are changed to reflect that desire for an almost jarring immediacy and fast-forward pacing that does more harm to the plot than good, IMO.

    Especially in thrillers, I prefer that slower burn to the beginning, giving the writer a chance to develop the characters and give you reasons to care about why they are important, plus build plot and suspense. I feel as though older films did this much better than those of today. Yet, as I hand in a well thought out plot and pacing and solid characters, someone goes and adds one crazy thing or another to amp the sudden, in-your-face-at-the-word-jump immediacy, or what I like to call the shock scares, or some cornball thing no human being would ever do, to which my reaction is, it’s your film, but does that really add anything to the story?

    They also seem to want over the top and I tend to work on a less is more sort of deal, especially when you’re working on a tight budget. Done well, a small amount of FX can get a better creep out reaction than some crazy over the top effect. But, evidently, that’s not what people want nowadays, so I’m in the minority there. In the end, it’s their film, I just write it.

    And I sometimes feel as though that mentality creeps into novels as well, giving you a heart-pounding thrill ride without ever trying to develop the characters and plot, never stopping to let you see that the sword-wielding nightmare to evilspawn everywhere with the kewl magic sword likes to smell roses when no one is looking because it was his dead wife’s favorite. And whenever he does so, he cries because it’s the only time anymore he can remember her face amidst the memories of bloodshed. Or the sidekick that’s going to die two scenes from now that has a girl he’s vowed to go back and marry when the war’s over and he has a keepsake of her in his pack he likes to sleep with to remind him that there’s still something beautiful in the world waiting for him when the horror is over. But then again, I like to see the heart and soul, as it were, in characters that I’m going to spend days with in my head.

    In the end, I don’t necessarily need all three in every scene, but a fairly balanced blend of all three throughout definitely makes for a better reading experience.

  • Ack, didn’t realize I’d gotten that long-winded. Sorry.

  • Agreeing with Lilian here: BBC Sherlock does this really well. I’m not sure if Moffat or Gatiss worked on those two episodes of Who, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Some writers and directors are great at braiding those three threads together.

    I have to wonder if that trinity of head, heart, and gut is something recognized in hindsight, or something cultivated from the beginning. Would it read as organically if brought out after the fact?

  • Oh, love those episodes. Definitely in my top five. Now that I think about it, the rest of my top five could also be categorized as successfully blending those elements, in particular “Girl in the fireplace” from season two.

  • Like Lillian, I immediately thought of the BBC/PBS Sherlock series, and in particular (because I came to it late and have yet to watch the first season) episodes one and three of the second season, which were utterly brilliant.

    I tend to write to the heart. I think that my conceptual work is probably the weakest link in my writing, whereas my character work, which is what I think of when you talk about “heart,” is my strength. And I don’t think it’s just romance; sometimes writing to the heart means finding different ways, often having nothing to do with romance, to touch your readers’ emotions.

    Interesting post, as usual.

  • Intriguing post. I try to include all three but I know that I have to work at the emotions. I use my strengths of plot and character in the first draft. I like to write that fast and using my strengths lets me do that. In the subsequent revisions I layer on the emotions and reactions.

  • Lillian,
    yes, the new Sherlock does this extremely well, which is surprising because the stories as written (and which I love) tend to miss the emotional component, at least to a modern eye, because they are so invested in the core mystery and the oddity which is the protagonist. The TV show House (which is, of course, another Holmes spin off) wrestles with a similar tension.

    Thanks Mud 🙂

    agreed that you don’t need all three in every scene so much as in the overall story. In fact, I suspect it’s better if your scenes vary their emphasis, but that they finally connect into a satisfying whole. I know… easier said than done.

    I’ve grown skeptical of the ‘inorganic’ argument. I think that anything can be made to feel organic if its done right, regardless of the stage in which it is added to the story. I’m about to start reading my first draft of Darwen III and have no real sense of what I’m going to find, except that I know I’m going to need to draw some elements larger or richer. When I do I’ll weave them in carefully, and give the whole several more editorial passes till they FEEL organic, even if they weren’t part of the first draft. Make sense?

    totally agree about Girl in the Fireplace. One of my favorites too and for the same reason. It’s episodes like this that show how much the show has grown since its original incarnation.

    yes, I didn’t mean to suggest that romance was what I meant by heart, just that it’s an example. Anything that touches, moves, that generates emotional affect counts.

    I think I do something similar, and (as I said to Scribe) it sometimes takes me a few goes to figure out what the emotional core of the story is, so that elements tends to build as a I edit.

  • TwilightHero

    I love posts like this. The ones that don’t talk about the usual stuff, e.g. plotting, BIC, marketing etc. – not that there’s anything wrong with those! – but that get you thinking about aspects of story writing you never thought of before, or took for granted if you did. The ones that show you things from a different angle 🙂

    Much as I’d like it to be otherwise, my weakness is probably what makes a great difference to me in books: heart. Emotion. The things that make you care about the characters. I’m a big fan of the cerebral element – the more cool plot twists, the better. And being a relatively young male, I enjoy the action scenes too – though the more complicated ones can be tricky writing, as you keep thinking of factors you forgot to take into account. But it’s the emotional parts, major and minor, that make you feel for the people involved. Though the scenes I always planned to be emotional do turn out well, a lot of the time I end up having to go back and insert more character development – otherwise it’d be mostly action and plot.

    I very much agree that a balance between these three is essential. Without head or heart, the guts are superficial. Without heart or guts, the head is boring. And without guts or head, the heart is, for lack of a better word, sappy.

  • Lovely post, AJ. And it got me thinking about other genres an dhow they tend to be either lacking in one element or a specific blend of them that differes from SiFiF. The mystery/thriller genre is far too often a head-game with little (or no) heart. Romance, of course, is usually all heart, no head. And I have to stop myself from making Urban Fantasy all action.
    Lovely post. I think I’ll stick a sticky note to my monitor that says, Heart, Head, Viscera: Emotion, Plot, Action. I like!

  • AJ, I think this is always a timely subject. As a reader I love a mix of those three elements. I think that’s what I like about the Doctor Who episodes going as far back as Jon Pertwee and many of the ones with Tom Baker. And for me the Lord of The Rings balances those elements nicely also.

    Something Daniel said really hit me: developing character. I’m struggling with a long WIP and it is that long because one protagonst goes through major personality changes and the secondary protag (is there such a thing? there is now) also goes through some major changes. I’m afraid that the impact of how both characters handle the climax and the aftermath will be lost without full character development.

    Yeah, you can go too far with that. I’m looking for beta readers to tell me objectively what has to go, because at this point it all seems to matter so terribly much. And then in tossing stuff, I don’t want to sacrifice aspects of head, heart or guts that in fact are important.

    I’m back unicycling on my tighrope and juggling eggs 😀

  • Twilight,
    excellent! I’m always hunting for things to post on, so I’m glad this hit the spot for you. I think the emotional stuff is very hard to do well, because it requires such a delicate touch or else it can easily turn (as you say) sappy. I should say, of course, that some writers (in the military scifi end of the market, for instance) don’t attempt to do this at all, and it doesn’t hurt their sales. This is a very particular subgenre, however, and not one that interests me personally. Balance is all.

    aren’t you sweet! Another set of MW T shirts on the horizon: Head, Guts and Heart (they’re not just for breakfast anymore).

    you may need to get some distance from it (i.e. time away from it) in addition to getting some Beta readers who you trust. I don’t know the book, of course, but it seems like developing two characters sufficiently for the climax should be doable within a standard length novel. Some judicial pruning might be in order 🙂

  • Like others here, the BBC Sherlock is also the same thing that came to mind for me. I love the “heart” addition to the stories. While I admired the Sherlock Holmes stories I read, I never loved them because they never really touched me–they were simply fascinating puzzles told in narrative form.

    Since I’ve been keeping my niece this week and spending lots of time watching various Disney movies, I have to say this is something Disney/Pixar usually does well. Sometimes the heart part becomes sappy, but the good ones use the heady wit to avoid overdoing the heart.

    I think for me that’s a valuable lesson to keep in mind–my tendency might be too much heart, and I have to remember to use the head to balance. Of course, sometimes then I go overboard and have too much head. It’s a constant balancing act.

  • J. J. Hall

    I’ve noticed in my own writing that when I consciously try to balance elements like these, I tend to try balancing by word count. 3 sentences of head, 3 of heart, 3 of fire. Wait. That’s Captain Planet. Anyway, I know at an intellectual level that one sentence of head can balance ten sentences of heart, primarily because I’ve seen it so often as a reader and viewer, almost like seasoning on a burger, but it almost feels… wrong as I write it, you know?

    So, my question is, does anyone have any advice on how to give that 1 sentence of head enough punch that it balances the heart without me, as the writer, from feeling like the 1 sentence of head is of better quality than the 10 sentences of heart?

    Does that even make sense?

    Also, I think another episode that balances head, heart, and guts of Doctor Who is The Doctor’s Wife.

  • rebnatan

    The Daleks were the only scifi villains that were able to genuinely frighten my kids. Why was that? Their design was cheesy, their speech simple-minded. I think it was the successful integration of Head, Guts and Heart in the series.
    In the best fiction, you’re not even aware of the distinctions. In his 1934 novel “Eyeless In Gaza,” Aldous Huxley engages in endless political and philosophical introspection. When I first read the book it seemed as much an action novel as any Star Wars book (it’s different on subsequent reads).
    The Star Wars New Jedi Order series (especially with Vergere) contain some very deep intellectual insights, that are part of the action.
    What’s worst is pseudo-intellectual insights, where you can see the author straining to be deep. Mindless violence is preferable to mindless intellectualism.

  • Sisi
    agreed on both points re. Sherlock and Pixar. And yes, I think the key is balance, so it’s good to know which way you naturally lean so you (and your Beta readers, if you use them) can deliberately compensate.

    tough to say without looking at specific instances. I’m wary of actually counting out sentences for ba;ance because, as you suggest, one might have a lot more punch than the other ten. I don’t think there’s a simple rule of thumb, and I think that (as we said earlier) it’s not really something you need worry about at the level of a single page or scene, because the balance is often best achieved by balancing one entire strand of the narrative with another. For someone who nicely uses this balance at the level of dialogue in TV, you can’t do better than Joss Whedon, I think.

    not sure I’d take mindless violence of any kind of intellectualism, but I agree about the daleks. The last episodes of season 4 are wonderful at setting the FEEL of the daleks up, not by showing the daleks themselves but by showing other people’s reactions (esp. Sarah Jane and Captain Jack) to them. As Shakespeare says, passion is catching. For all the value of showing rather than telling, there’s a ot to be said for making something scary simply by showing how much everyone is afraid of it.

  • What Twilight said: I like these “unusual” subject posts because they really get me thinking. I don’t affix labels to this stuff or think about it on my own, but I do it unconsciously, if that makes sense. These types of posts/discussions are great for putting a name to things. I can’t quite answer the other questions, but this is something to keep in mind, for sure. Thanks, AJ!

  • Razziecat

    Don’t they say that good things come in threes? 🙂 Keeping these three elements balanced is a challenge, but when I get it right, the scene works in a way that feels complete in itself, and builds a bridge from whatever came before to whatever comes next. I do tend to focus a lot on the “heart” aspect, but when I get to the action I find I have to go back and weave some of the emotional stuff. I try to keep action scenes–like fights, for example–tight and sharp, so sometimes it’s hard to get the gut and heart in there. But it’s always worthwhile.

    For me, Carol Berg, Judith Tarr and Lois McMaster Bujold (especially in her fantasy works) are three authors who always get this balance right. I like to go back to their books now and then to get a feel for the way they do it, and try to learn from it.

  • Faith Spake: “The mystery/thriller genre is far too often a head-game with little (or no) heart. Romance, of course, is usually all heart, no head. And I have to stop myself from making Urban Fantasy all action.

    Maybe that’s why I’m not selling. 😉

  • quillet

    I was innocently drinking water when I read, “Head, Guts and Heart: they’re not just for breakfast anymore.” And water nearly came out of my nose! 😀 I want that t-shirt!

    Really agree with Razziecat about those three authors, and in fact Bujold’s BARRAYAR immediately came to my mind. Cordelia does some pretty extreme things to defend her child, which is guts (danger and action) and heart (love for a child), but also head (Cordelia’s thoughts/qualms about being drawn into the violence).

    Myself, I think I focus too much on head and heart, and not enough on guts. My writing always gets better when I remember to up the stakes, increase the danger and action. (Guts. Must remember the guts.)

  • Laura,
    you’re more than welcome. Glad this stirred the little grey cells.

    always good to hear the names of authors you think get it right. Thanks.

    That shirt would be a hit at zombie-themed cons, I think 🙂 And yes, as others have said, knowing what we’re not as good at is the first step to finding a way to finding a more balanced and effective approach. We all have our blindspots or areas that don’t come as easily to us. That’s ok. Just means we need to work a little harder 🙂

  • sagablessed

    It seems Doctor Who is popular amongst writers, as this is the third post I have read where a contributor has mentioned it. I loved our introduction to the Doctor’s future (past?) wife. Another I loved was the intro to the Weeping Angels.

    I would also like to point out an episode of Torchwood, the one with the alien who lived off of memories. When Jack gave everyone the amnesia pills, you almost felt sorry for the alien, as when the memories were erased, it would die. Head, heart, and guts. I could ramble more, but won’t.

    This helps me, as I tend to be all heart and some action, but very little gut.

  • Megan B.

    This is a nice, succinct way of looking at multidimensional stories. If a movie/show/book seems shallow, maybe it’s missing one or more of these elements. I knew this intuitively, but I like how you put words to it. Furthermore, you can tell when one of these elements is slapped on. Too many action movies, for example, include a dead child or spouse to try and give the hero some heart. Or else there’s the old standby: predictable romance with someone the character just met.