Do You Write from the Heart or the Head?

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
I came across a quote from one of my favourite painters, which set me thinking about how I write. In particular, how to tackle a couple of thorny scenes in my WIP which will see my detective protagonist do just that—decide something with his head or his heart.

If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing.

Marc Chagall


I believe that readers remember incidents in a book that move their hearts, more than those that make them think. However clever your plotting, including red herrings, which makes a reader concentrate to work out what’s happening, it’s still possible to trip them up with a well-placed emotional scene. As William Faulkner said: “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.”

Ultimately, Sean Connery may have got things right:


What rules your writing? Your head or your heart?

(Or, your gut, which has feelings too?) :rolleyes:

This seems almost the perennial "plotter vs pantser" argument, and hits a bit too close to home for me. In my current WIP I've been largely pantsing - I had a few ideas, but they weren't well developed and I tried to "write through" them. Now I'm into the last few thousand words and I'm entirely stuck. Can't work out how to get my protagonists out of danger. Can't work out how to make the mystery plot hang together. Can't work out how to reveal the things the reader needs to know while keeping secret the surprises the ending needs to provide. Worse, now I find before I can write those last few thousand words, I have to go back through the rest of the work and reverse-engineer bits, rewrite scenes and chapters, put in foreshadowing, hang Chekov's guns on the wall... and I'm still not sure it's going to be a great finale when it's all said and done.

Different people write in different ways. Perhaps for some, "writing drunk and editing sober" as Hemingway never said, can work, but perhaps it depends partly on the type of story you're telling. If it's a complicated mystery that revolves around logic and evidence as much as it does the human heart, then I suspect you need the logic first. It might be easier to write the emotion around that, than to batter your plot logic into place against the stream of emotions running unhindered.

"Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober,” he had said, “and sometimes I write sober and revise drunk. But you have to have both elements in creation — the Apollonian and the Dionysian, or spontaneity and restraint, emotion and discipline.” Reuben, Rueben - Peter De Vries. Taken from Write Drunk, Revise Sober – Quote Investigator
My heart is always raring to go, but my head keeps it chained up until it's laid all the groundwork and set out the route. Then my head lets my heart loose and sometimes my heart finds a way through the maze that my head had not anticipated.

It's all about balancing the two.
As Pete mentioned in the recent huddle, writing a successful novel is mostly about conveying emotion that readers indentify with. To do that the writer must also identify with it so feel it, write it, craft it is probably the way to go. Most people get emotional when they drink so booze can be a useful tool :)
The most fun I have is in the planning - it doesn't matter how many things I throw in, I can do whatever I like. Change this, see what happens if I do that to him/her/it, or the location because this character hates-hates-hates this or that ...

I plan with the heart, even though it may look as if logic is involved. It isn't. This isn't my story, it doesn't belong to me, and I am not the one to constrain it. Not at this stage, and maybe not until the editing stage. The story belongs to the characters who have purpose and design on a goal, that journey has to move both the character, the writer, and the reader.

And I know, despite labelling myself a planner, that when the going gets unlimbered, that plan remains untouched and the characters (and the way they work, think, do, act) take over and drive towards their goal.

I have my fun in the first few steps of the story ... and the rest of it is almost like a decision to run with the bulls.

In there is the answer: heart or head?
I plan, write, and progress with the heart. I edit with the head, I rewrite with the heart, and finalise with the head and heart - it's an emotional connection, or it's not a story.

I know it's hard to start, it's hard to get over bumps and holes, it's hard to find just the right ending, but if the passion can drive me to go one step beyond the problem because I know what the goal is, the task is easier - and there's always the possibility that I was wrong, the character was right, the critique partners comments were valid, etc. But that all comes to light after completion, after the mad dash of the story unfolding like a coded treasure map ...
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Which agent?

Give me a genre, I'll raise you a trope