Putting Feelings into Words

by Marylee MacDonald in For Writers Doing Revisions

Finding the right words to express our characters’ emotions is one of the biggest challenges writers face. It’s all too easy to “tell”, rather than “show”. Telling is easy. As people living ordinary lives, we all know what it means when someone feels angry, depressed, or sad. However, when we write fiction or creative nonfiction, we have an opportunity to reveal how one person’s depression is different from another’s. By showing instead of telling, we can reveal the nuances of character that will make our people real for the reader. Additionally, by finding the right words to express the emotions of our characters, we can establish the rhythms of our stories. These sentence rhythms are important because the rhythms of language hook the emotions of the reader and, like a great wave, carry the reader forward. In a previous blog post, I wrote about the poetry of prose, particularly the sentences in Michael Byers’ novel, Percival’s Planet. In this post I’m going to expand on that topic.

man on a gloomy day

If an author can find words to express a character’s fleeting emotions, that will enhance the reader’s understanding of the character’s inner struggles.

Show, Don’t Tell

Before I launch into this, let’s remind ourselves of the Writer’s First Commandment: “Show, don’t tell.” The following sentence is an example of telling.

“Sundays in the spring always bummed him out.”

If we wanted to “show,” however, how might we do it? The following sentence comes from Charles Baxter’s A Feast of Love.

“It was a Sunday, one of those gloomy spring weekends before gardening and baseball have started, when the soul is located not near the heart or the head, but somewhere round the knees, and the sky, where the sun has not appeared for days, is the exact color of depression.”

Now, why is the second example better? Well, first off, the author feeds us particulars that help us know that this character is interested in baseball and gardening. Isn’t establishing the context of a person’s life part of character development? For sure.

In this passage we also gain an understanding of how depression feels: The passage intimates that the heart has sunk from the upper body right down to the knees. If you’ve ever had a moment of actual depression, then you know that depression is not just “in your head.” Feelings are located in the body. The sensation of depression can come from the gut, or even further down. Depression can bring us to our knees. We often sense that we’re depressed before we assign a word to how our body feels.

And, here’s a third observation about what’s going on in Baxter’s description. Depression is what we see–what we project out into the world we’re observing. T.S. Eliot called this projection the “objective correlative.” Basically, this high-falutin’ phrase just means that our feelings of the moment color the way we view the world. If we want to “show” how a character is feeling, then show what he’s looking at, touching, hearing, or smelling. Unleash your descriptive powers.

Story Rhythms

Now, let’s reread Baxter’s passage and appreciate the rhythms of his sentences. The sentences themselves conjure up a feeling of depression, do they not? And, why? Because of the poetry of the prose, the subject of another blog post. Baxter’s book was a National Book Award finalist for fiction, but he is also a poet, and you see that in his sentences.

Author Michael Parker was interviewed in Issue No. 50, Winter 2010, of the newsletter Writers Ask. Here’s what he had to say about the rhythms of a story:

“I believe very much in a line from an essay by Frank O’Connor: every novel or story worth its weight establishes a rhythm, and this is the rhythm of life itself. Finding the appropriate rhythm might be problematic, but it forces you to work with form, with narrative rhythm, and therefore what seems a problem becomes a blessing, because form is what distinguishes story—it is story—and what happens is far less important to me than “the music of what happened,” as William Goyen referred to the most important aspect of fiction making.”

Registering the Emotions of Secondary Characters

Let me return to Byers’ novel, Percival’s Planet (published in Great Britain as The Fixed Stars). The novel is about astronomers at Flagstaff’s Lowell Observatory. These astronomers are searching for Planet X.

The novel has a large cast of characters, but the main one is a young astronomer named Clyde Tombaugh, a Kansas farm boy who aspires to be an astronomer and who is the eventual discoverer of “Planet X”, as Pluto, prior to its “discovery,” was called. The novel also has a large cast of secondary characters, some fictional, some based on real people. To give you a general sense of the author’s process and an overview that will help you understand the characters I’m going to refer to below, please read this Book Page interview with Michael Byers.

Byers does a great job taking us into the body of Tombaugh, his protagonist, but why does he bother showing us—finding just the right words for—the subtle, bodily shifts that occur in his secondary characters? Is it worth taking the time to show how secondary characters’ looks change? Isn’t that wasting time, and shouldn’t he be getting on with the plot? Not in this book. And, actually, not in any book.

Showing us these changes is integral to the chain of cause-and-effect that makes up the plot. Secondary characters often drive the plot because they throw the protagonist off track or because they assist him/her in reaching a goal.

Let’s take an example. One of the secondary characters, a young astronomer name Allen Barber, goes to the eminent astronomer V.M. Slipher’s house for dinner. The “show, don’t tell” information Byers gives us about Sliphers’ reaction to Barber’s piano playing lets us know why Slipher clues Barber in to the existence of a comet. (There’s lots of astronomy in the book, not just the discovery of Pluto.)



The two sentences where he does this show character development, and they hook into the chain of “becauses” that make up the plot. First, Slipher is amused, then grateful for the piano playing, then grateful enough that he allows Allan to claim a sighting of the comet. This, then, leads to Barber naming the comet for Florence, the woman he loves. Here is sequence of subtle descriptions. These show fleeting emotional states, and the sentences reveal changes in the character’s emotional state.

Slipher eyes him sidelong with what looks like complicit amusement. (p. 93)

Slipher’s look now is private and faintly grateful, as though Alan has done him a secret good turn. (p. 95)

Just as a point of comparison, what would have been the effect if the author had written this instead? “Slipher chuckled to himself.” Would we have known anything about the nuanced feelings behind that secret laugh? No, nor would we have been prepared for the next sentence, from which we can infer that Slipher has come to a decision, a private, grateful decision.

Putting Words To Feelings That Are Transitory

Let’s look at how Byers’ sentences open up the ineffable moments of human emotion that are so hard to put into words. When Byers puts two words together that don’t ordinarily appear together, we readers experience something like a musical overtone. This is a technique I’m sure he learned from F. Scott Fitzgerald and possibly from Charles Baxter, who also frequently makes use of this strategy. It’s common for poets to experiment with word combinations that create a third, invisible word.

In the example below, what does that word “terrible” add to our understanding of what’s going on? Is it overwriting, or does it make the emotion more intense? (I’m going to highlight these word combinations. They’re not italicized in Byers’ original text, but I’d like you to simply notice them and let the emotion they evoke register on you.)

In the car he turns to her with a look of terrible fright in his eyes. (p. 115)

…in his eyes is a look of fascinated malevolence. (p. 118)

So her despair now is mostly a show: a guilty relishing of her own small bravery. (p. 124)

You do not solve a decade’s worth of least squares residuals without displaying a certain focused mania. (p. 129)

In these examples, notice how the sentence builds to its last few words. The words provide a climax, an emotional payoff, for the reader.

Weather and Description

How easy it is to make descriptions of weather or scenery utterly predictable. By varying the accents on syllables, by following a sentence we might write with one that provides poetic emphasis, Byers enhances the reader’s ability to imaginatively enter that scene.

They walk out into the blazing midday sun. Heat slams down everywhere. (p.88)

Don’t we feel that heat slam down? And, how about the next example, where Byers ends a passage with the character Mary on the lookout for the rider? This sent a chill down my spine. (Oops! That’s a cliché!) How easy it is to slip into them and how hard to use language with precision.

In conversation, she is distracted; she is listening for the sound he will make as he comes up, a dead leaf rustling.

Byers’ Use of Syntax

As you surely know, English is a remarkably flexible, syntactical language. Based on a structure of S-V-O (subject-verb-object), or with the S and V inverted in the case of a question, English retains its meaning for the reader as long as writers use grammar correctly.

In my previous post about this book, I made an analogy to a closet rod on which Byers hangs his “word shirts.” Let’s look at one of his more complex sentences. The closet rod in the sentence below is “she misses home.”

But she is frightened by his calm, and all at once, with a terrible passion, she misses home, misses Scranton, before any of those horrible things happened—the long fence against the back yard, the sooty coal-field air and the midnight crashing of the trains along Holloway Street, and the trucks barreling along the highway. (p. 149)

What are the hangers? Is it easy to figure out what to call these parts of speech?

What about the first part of this sentence?

“But she is frightened by his calm…”

Is it a conjunctive adverb (the meaning of the “but” is “however”) or a subordinating conjunction (the first part of the sentence is dependent on the main clause), or is it a coordinating conjunction (the meaning of the word is “and”)?

Byers could have written the sentence this way: “She misses home, but she is frightened by his calm.” This would imply a relationship between her missing home and her being frightened by his calm. One would be subordinate, or dependent upon, the other.

Or he could have written…

She is frightened by his calm, and she misses Scranton.—a coordinating conjunction

Or he could have started the sentence with an adverbial phrase (where, when, why) that is embedded in that first part of the sentence.

All at once, she misses home.

My point is that these small phrases—adverbial phrases and dependent clauses—allow the writer to include more information. Byers packs feeling into this sentence by allowing qualifiers like “all at once” and “terrible passion.” These aren’t strictly necessary for us to get his drift, but they add emotional resonance to his characters’ observations and inner lives.

Another Example

Let’s look at another passage. Before the semicolon, you’ll see two independent clauses. The first clause has a S-V-O structure. The coordinating conjunction “and” links this first clause to a second independent clause with a S-V structure. (The verb in this clause is intransitive, so the clause does not have a direct object). Two short phrases follow. One is a prepositional phrase—“at home.” The other is an adverbial phrase that modifies the intransitive verb “remains.” That is “when she can.” (Adverbs modify verbs just as adjectives modify nouns.) I’ll make the S-V-Os orange so that you can see the basic sentence structure. I’ll discuss what’s happening after the semicolon in just a minute.

She [S] gets off [V] her lines [O] as she is able, and [implied subject-she] remains [V] at home when she can; she [S] wraps [V] herself in Holly’s robe and smokes [V] on the screened-in porch and reads [V] his magazines and assures [V] herself all the doors are locked, and she [S] will lay [V] herself in the bath and try [V] to regulate the temperature to exactly blood warmth as the nurses did for her at Belmont, working the taps with her long pretty toes. (p. 148)

After the semicolon Byers uses phrasing that is reminiscent of Hemingway—a series of “ands.” However, embedded in that series are some prepositional phrases: “in Holly’s robe,” “on the screened-in porch,” and “in the bath.” He ends the sentence with that vivid image of “her long pretty toes.” As with the sentences we looked at earlier, that last phrase provides a climax or payoff for the reader.

Byers’ natural inclination is toward complexity. He has his ear down on the track, and he’s listening hard for the vibrations of the oncoming train. It’s through his connection with the material, particularly his understanding of his characters, that he’s able to pull out of the ether these sentences that are packed with feeling.

For more on Byers’ thoughts about description, read this craft essay.

Byers’ writing is full of examples of feelings intermingled with sensory detail. We are inside the character at the same time we’re seeing what he or she sees. His novels is are worth studying because they can show us a lot about the true meaning of “show, don’t tell.”

Applying These Insights

As to how to apply this to your own writing, I’ll just share what I do. I don’t slavishly parse the grammar of every sentence. Instead, when I’ve solved the plot problems and dealt with issues of character–in short, when I have finished my second or third draft of the entire book–I print out the manuscript and look for places where I’ve taken the easy way out. “She was angry.” “He felt prickles on his neck.” “He glanced at…” “She teared up…”

I sit in that moment of the story and see if I can go deeper inside the character. I play around. What’s in the character’s immediate environment? Sometimes, I find an object in the setting that will reflect the character’s mental state.

Perhaps the most well known example of this is John Gardner’s writing prompt from The Art of Fiction: “Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war.”

You don’t need to say, “The man was grieving because he’d lost his son.” All you need to do is describe the barn, his barn as he would see it on that particular day.

What is your character’s barn? How might you describe that barn in a moment of high intensity? Could you have two descriptions of the barn, one early in the story and one after whatever climactic event might have happened?

What about taking a moment to add some poetry to your prose? Can you dig deeper to add nuance to your character’s changes of emotional state?

These are questions I’m asking myself as I revise my novel, The Vermillion Sea. I’m always surprised that even in a late draft, I’m continuing to make discoveries about the inner lives of my characters. Those discoveries come from working on the sentences.

2 Responses to “Putting Feelings into Words”

  1. Linda Gartz says:

    Wow, Marylee! This is a deep dive into the ways grammatical understanding really helps develop sentences with resonant meaning for the reader. Thank you for creating this very detailed analysis!