Monday, March 12, 2012

That thing you do: using action to show feeling

A couple days ago, I wrote about reading to learn and mentioned one way my writing needs to improve: 

"One of my tendencies in fiction is to summarize action in analytic, explanatory terms rather than using concrete, sensory details and in-the-moment action to let the reader jump into the story themselves."

And today I came across this in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. All you need to know is Portia is Doctor Copeland's grown daughter, William his son. Doctor Copeland, an enlightened, philosophical man, had high ideals but ended up alienating his four children with his intense hopes and expectations. Now that the children are adults, Portia is the only one who visits her father on occasion, and he clearly misses having a relationship with all of them. She is about to leave from one such visit while her husband (Highboy) and William wait outside Doctor Copeland's house.

"Wait a minute," said Doctor Copeland. "I have only seen your husband with you about two times and I believe we have never really met each other. And it has been three years since William has visited his father. Why not tell them to drop in for a little while?" 
Portia stood in the doorway, fingering her hair and her earrings. 
"Last time Willie come in here you hurted his feelings. You see you don't understand just how---" 
"Very well," said Doctor Copeland. "It was only a suggestion." 
"Wait," said Portia. "I going to call them. I going to invite them in right now." 
Doctor Copeland lighted a cigarette and walked up and down the room. He could not straighten his glasses to just the right position and his fingers kept trembling. From the front yard there was the sound of low voices. Then heavy footsteps were in the hall and Portia, William, and Highboy entered the kitchen.

'(81/365) Ahhh...' photo (c) 2009, Sarah - license:

I love how those two sentences I italicized show Doctor Copeland's feelings without using any analytical phrases, or even adjectives (other than "right position"). In fact, as a test, I read just those two sentences, with no background information, to my husband and asked him what he thought Doctor Copeland was feeling. "Stress, fear, nervousness?" Exactly!

A student writer (myself) would have written something like "Doctor Copeland paced nervously..." And that he fidgeted with his glasses. But those two sentences Carson McCullers wrote describe just the right actions to show nervous pacing and the kind of obsession with tiny details we do unconsciously when we're nervous. 

Plus, the actions carry a secondary meaning, a deeper weight. The Dr. didn't just fidget with his glasses--he couldn't "straighten his glasses to just the right position." That detail implies failure, the sense he had of really trying to do something right but never succeeding. He couldn't "straighten" his kids out either, nor could he seem to repair the damage once he'd done it. 

I love it!


  1. This is what fascinates me about the most minor detail can completely change the context of a sentence. It's so fascinating to me.

  2. I think the great writers of the world have an uncanny ability to word things in ways that wouldn't even occur to most of us. It's such a gift...