Saturday, March 24, 2012

Let's Talk About Feelings

Though emotions do fall under this category, I'm talking about all things that can be felt on the inside, and on the outside. So in other words, anything involving the five senses.

Writers write characters who feel things. That's a given. If an author didn't include what their characters felt, they wouldn't have much of a book. Aside from the fact that feelings are sometimes overlooked by novice writers who might get a bit too caught up in the action or plot of their story, there are those who think the problem is solved if they simply convey that the character felt something.

Feel, feeling and felt are great summary words to use in everyday conversation. Your child doesn't feel like going to school because he's not feeling well. You tell the psychiatrist about what happened today and he asks how that makes you feel. Every time the dog has a barkfest while standing on the picnic table overlooking the neighborhood, you feel like debarking may not be so cruel after all. Oh, I guess that last one is mine. And for the record, I would never have my dog debarked.

The word feel and its tenses is a lazy verb that might join its cousins in the passive verb club. Though it's not passive, it is weak. And overused. Feel fills the space of four letters and is about as dry as the leftover cake from last week's birthday party.

I'm not saying to never use the word feel in your writing, because sometimes that's the best word choice. But do put feel on your self-editing watch list. Consider the feelings you're describing and determine if there's a better way to express an emotion or sensation. It will take more words, and you may have to stretch your creativity and use simile or metaphor, but that's your job as a writer. No one said it would be easy.

For example, at the beginning of the novella I'm currently working on, I have a character who feels sad and lonely because his wife is dead. Instead of saying he feels sad and lonely, I avoid the word "feel" by showing his grief: 
I found him in his bedroom sitting cross-legged on the floor with my mother's nightgown in his lap. He held it up to his face, his scarred fingers clutching the fabric as he took several long, deep breaths.
Instead of the character saying she felt hot, I show it:
Sweat pooled at the hollow of my throat and drops of it rolled down the sides of my face to drip in my ear.
Instead of the character feeling herself breathe, she describes what it's like:
My breathing came slow and rhythmic, and I listened to the gentle whoosh of air flowing down my throat and back up again. 
If you're a writer, look through your current work in progress and find an instance where you can expand on a feeling to turn it into an experience for the reader. Share it in comments if you like. :)


Diana Mcc. said...

This is from my work in progress. The heroine has just inherited her Great Aunt's farm house.

"The key with a pink rubber finger grip lay in her palm, while visions of the pink farmhouse tugged at her heartstrings."

I know it is out of context, but what do you think about the quote? thanks, Karen.

Karen Duvall said...

Diana, I really like the association you make between the pink key grip and the pink farmhouse. I would, however, advise against "tugged at her heartstrings" because it doesn't work in your favor as a description of how she feels. Does her chest tighten? Does her breathing hitch? Is there a tumbling sensation in her tummy? When our heart is affected by a feeling, we don't actually experience it in the muscle inside our chest that we call a heart. Is she sad? Anxious? Hurt? Nostalgic? That's the sort of feeling readers want to experience. Describe what that feels like.

Diana Mcc. said...

Thanks so much for the advice! I'll stick the comment in my rewrite file. :))