How to Convey Emotion Indirectly

22 Oct
Mũthoni Kiarie's story "What We Lost" appeared in Narrative Magazine as a Story of the Week.

Mũthoni Kiarie’s story “What We Left Behind” appeared in Narrative Magazine as a Story of the Week.

Sometimes the best way to approach important moments in a story is indirectly. To that end, the writer John Gardner gave his students this exercise: Write a paragraph about a farmer grieving after his son’s death. But you can’t mention the son or his death or any words that signal emotion. Instead, you must describe the barn and, in the details you choose, convey the farmer’s sense of loss.

This can be a difficult exercise because we realize how dependent we are on direct treatment of everything in a story. If you try to describe the barn, though, and if you continue to find indirect approaches to key information in fiction, you might be surprised at the effect on your writing. You’ll also begin to see the strategy everywhere in stories.

A great example is in the opening paragraph of Mũthoni Kiarie’s story “What We Left Behind.” It was a finalist in the Spring 2012 Story Contest from Narrative Magazine, where you can read it now. (Note: Sign-in is required, but it’s free.)

How the Story Works

The premise of the story is very simple. A Kenyan village is attacked by armed men, and the survivors flee. Notice how long the story waits to state the premise—not until the fourth paragraph. What precedes that paragraph is, in part, an indirect description that conveys the survivors’ depth of loss:

“In the beginning, the sandy ground was littered with the things that those who went before us had abandoned: sisal sleeping mats, many with the threads that bound the fibers together loosening as they flopped in the wind; suitcases; water troughs; beaded jewelry; tin cooking utensils; thin cotton dresses, skirts, shirts, and trousers; woven baskets, the kind that carried cassava crops from one home to another, and bigger, more elaborate baskets, the kind that were given to a new bride on her wedding day; rubber-soled sandals, ones for tall men and ones for smaller men, and thinner ones for women, flimsier ones for children, and all black, blacker than the people whose feet they had once adorned. But as the days went by and we continued to walk, there were fewer and fewer of these things, and instead we began to see a scattering of carcasses from animals left to die in the dry desert heat.”

At first, the description merely lists the objects that litter the ground. But as the list proceeds, it begins to offer greater detail. For instance, it distinguishes between baskets that “carried cassava crops from one home to another, and bigger, more elaborate baskets, the kind that were given to a new bride on her wedding day.” And between types of sandals: “ones for tall men and ones for smaller men, and thinner ones for women, flimsier ones for children, and all black, blacker than the people whose feet they had once adorned.”

The passage ends by upending the list: the items are gradually replaced with animal carcasses.

Though the paragraph never shows the people fleeing the village, we get a strong sense of their presence (and of the narrator’s emotions) through the attention given to the objects on the ground.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try to convey important emotional information without approaching it directly. We’ll use Mũthoni Kiarie’s story as a model:

  1. Choose an event that produces strong emotion. Ideally, the emotion should last for a while, as opposed to a flash of anger or frustration that is quickly forgotten. Examples of events include these: death, marriage, divorce, birth, moving to another house or city, losing a job, changing jobs, professional disappointment, professional success, winning the lottery, or your team winning a big game.
  2. Try the John-Gardner exercise. Describe the contents of a room or place that is significant to your character. Don’t state the emotion or anything related to the event. (And no cheating with synonyms or giving animals or inanimate objects human dimensions—ducks skipping, walls smiling, that sort of thing.
  3. Add an element of time. How does the room or place change as the minutes/hours/days pass? This may be easier since it makes the description active rather than static.
  4. Optional: End the passage with a single line that states the emotion or something related to the event. Sometimes a line that bluntly states what has become obvious after an indirect description can shake the reader a little. For an example of this effect, read the last paragraph and sentence of Mũthoni Kiarie’s story.

Remember, the idea is to get inside the character’s head. Bad fiction tends to state what it cannot show. It tells the reader that a character is excited or sad or angry, and it’s no accident that the prose in such fiction is mechanical. But when you read good fiction, you’ll notice passages that are not directly related to plot or character development—they’re simply the book/narrator telling us about things in the character’s world. It’s the ability to write passages like these, without falling into dull description, that opens up the range and possibility of a prose voice.

Good luck and have fun.

Advertisements

2 Responses to “How to Convey Emotion Indirectly”

  1. David W. Blythe May 13, 2015 at 8:02 p05 #

    Reblogged this on David W. Blythe and commented:
    A great writing tip. I am going to implement this in my next writing project.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Interview with Mũthoni Kiarie | Read to Write Stories - January 15, 2014

    […] (To read Kiarie’s story “What We Left Behind” and an exercise based on the story’s indirect treatment of emotion, click here.) […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: