Flannery O’Connor once said that, as writers, we can’t create emotion with emotion. We need to provide it with a body, to “create a world with weight and extension.”
Love on its own, for example, is too broad and abstract for the reader to feel.
If we write about something as ethereal as love without anchoring it in the physical world, we won’t connect emotionally to our reader. That’s because emotion exists beneath abstraction and explanation. It lives in the breathing world of the real, a tactile world we create when we selectively give weight to the objects of our story.
Sensory details trigger emotions in readers.
It’s pure biology. Our brain is multi-layered and although these layers interact with one another, each perceives and responds differently to stimuli. The top layer, the cerebral cortex, takes in, analyzes and categorizes sense information. Here’s where we reason, contemplate, reach intellectual insights and process abstractions. This part of our brain can understand the concept of love.
But it can’t feel it.
That ability resides deeper, in the early mammalian brain. This layer takes in information through the five senses, then produces a wide variety of sense responses within the body.
When a reader feels fear for a character, or anger at another, or dread for what might happen behind the parking lot of a mall, his mammalian brain is engaged.
So to blast through the reader’s intellect to his most primitive, gut level response, we need to bring our characters’ emotions out of the analytical, away from the general, beyond the abstract.
We need to recreate the character’s experience.
We need to see, hear, touch, taste and smell their world.
Take this excerpt from Suzanne Berne’s novel, A Crime in the Neighborhood.
In 1972 Spring Hill was as safe a neighborhood as you could find near an East coast city, one of those instant subdivisions where brick split-levels and two-car garages had been planted like cabbages on squares of quiet green lawn. Occasionally somebody’s Schwinn bicycle was stolen, or a dog was hit by a car that kept on going. Once in a while, we heard about a shoplifter at the Spring Hill Mall, six blocks away. But otherwise both the mall and the neighborhood always struck everyone as the most ordinary of places.
Then one summer evening around five-thirty, just as business at the mall had finished for the day, a florist named Miss Evelyn Crespo carried a box of orchid corsages out to her car for a wedding that night. She had parked far back behind the mall in a row of spaces reserved for employees, below a two-acre wooded rise. That time of day, the mall’s triangular shadow cut upward across the hill like a wedge. As Miss Crespo slid the corsages into her back seat she heard what she thought was a cat mewing from the shaded half of the hillside.
The sun was in her eyes when she backed away from the car to look around. After a moment, the mewing came again, or something like it, a small, weak sound. Although she was a heavy woman, and the day was hot, she climbed partway up the rise toward where it flattened out, wading through the broken bottles, locust husks, and tangled creeper vines to see if the source of the mewing might be somebody’s lost kitten. When she didn’t find anything, she carefully edged back down toward the parking lot, once grabbing the branch of a laurel bush for support. Then she went inside the mall, locked up her shop for the night, waved to the hairdressers in the Klip ‘n’ Kurl hair salon, came out through the automatic glass doors to her car carrying the bridal bouquet, and drove off to Bethesda to deliver her wedding flowers.
Here’s what this passage can teach us:
Resist telling us how your character feels.
Instead, provoke your reader to feel by selecting concrete, vivid details.
Suzanne Berne never tells us Miss Crespo is scared. Because that would short-circuit our desire to feel it ourselves. Instead, she recreates her experience through sensory detail. She shows her grabbing the branch of a laurel bush for support as she edges her way back down the hill. We hear the small weak sound of mewing coming from the shaded half of the hillside.
We’re scared for her, a visceral response to concrete images.
Slant the details.
Tangles creeper vines, broken bottles, the slanted hillside. The triangular shadow that cut upward across the hill like a wedge. Ominous indeed.
If Miss Crespo felt joyful rather than fearful, the selected details might be different. Instead of tangled creeper vines and broken bottle husks, maybe she’d see sun slanting through tall pines. Maybe a red cardinal, alighting on a snow dusted tree branch.
In life, we select and slant details, too. Things that command our focus move to the foreground while everything else fades into the background. This field of vision is constantly shifting according to the way we feel in any given moment.
Details such as broken bottles, locust husks, and tangled creeper vines work on our subconscious in menacing fashion. Berne interlaces these sinister details with more benevolent objects: the box of orchid corsages, the bridal bouquet, the brick split-levels and two-car garages, the Schwinn bicycle – details that connote complacent, traditional family life. It’s the juxtaposition of the ordinary with the ominous that ratchets up the tension. If her details were solely ominous, the murder of the young boy, which is revealed two paragraphs later, might feel to us like a foregone conclusion. And we wouldn’t feel the same sense of dread.
Because Berne’s details clash, hovering between the safe and the threatening, tension is built right into the narrative. Each side illuminates the other, making this passage all the more threatening.
Conveying emotion is, among other things, an exercise in point of view.
A view of the sun rising over the bay at the same exact moment will look different to a woman whose child is missing than to a woman who’s just fallen in love.
Notice how your own emotions often distort your reality.
In this excerpt from A Crime in the Neighborhood, ten-year-old Marsha is reacting to a series of upheavals; her father has just deserted the family to carry on a love affair with her Aunt Ada, and Boyd Ellison, a young boy in the neighborhood, has just been found murdered behind the Spring Hill Mall. Shortly after these two events collide, here is how Marsha observes the objects in her house:
I noted the worn patches in the hallway’s Oriental runner, the scuff marks on the stairs, the scorch at the back of the lampshade in the living room. The screen was coming away from the screen door in one corner, curling away from the metal frame like a leaf. The volume-control knob had fallen off the hi-fi, leaving a forked metal bud. Steven had spilled India ink on the sofa, and if you turned over the left cushion, you found a deep blue stain shaped like a moose antler. I had never realized our house contained so many damaged things.
Most often, we aren’t equipped to fully comprehend, much less articulate, how we feel.
Emotions are loaded. And they’re pretty complex.
And we never feel one emotion or another, but several, often conflicting emotions simultaneously. Love can be wrapped up in fear, disappointment, loneliness, even anger.
The world observed by your character can embody the full spectrum of emotional layers, feelings that the characters themselves are not equipped to articulate, much less understand.
So if you’re going to give us the contents of your character’s living room, ask if those details are anchored in your character’s consciousness.
What our characters pay attention to and how they perceive the world around them often reveal more about their feelings than an explicit explanation of their mood can.
The author doesn’t simply tell us Marsha feels sad about her father’s absence. Or fear about Boyd Ellison’s murder. She doesn’t tell us that everything Marsha’s learned to trust has been suddenly, irrevocably turned upside down. She lets the objects in her house carry those feelings. Her sadness becomes embodied in “scuff marks on the stairs,” in the “scorch at the back of the lampshade,” in the deep blue ink stain on the sofa cushion.
To say Marsha is sad is an understatement. By the way she observes the things in her house, we know she feels malfunctioned, damaged, broken, and stained herself.
There’s camouflage and, at the same time, revelation.
The narrator tells us something essential about herself, but by shifting the focus to the things in her house, she avoids self-pity and sentimentality.
Objects then can be figurative representations for what our characters can’t, won’t, or refuse to acknowledge or accept about their own condition.
Abstract ideas such as “grief,” “loss,” “abandonment,” “confusion,” and “fear” never enter the narrative. They’re not even acknowledged by the character. Yet these emotions enter deeply into us.
Try this free-writing exercise.
Bring yourself back to a moment when you felt fear.
Now bring it out of your head and into the physical world.
How does fear taste? How does it smell? What do you hear?
Reach for something tactile. What objects do you see that can be repositories for that fear?
Just riff on this for about ten minutes.
Don’t mention the fear. Go for images.
And if you’re up to sharing, so I can give you some feedback, post it in the comments below. Or email me here.
As always, I love seeing what you create.