by Rebecca Makkai
It’s hard enough to make our characters act, make them do and say interesting things. You know what’s harder? Well, lots of stuff. Coal mining, for one. Come on, writing is a pretty cushy job. But here’s what’s harder than action: reaction. All that internal stuff, all those emotions.
Your characters get devastating news. This happens fairly regularly, it being fiction. Or they’re hugely nervous, or they’re in love. And remembering the first piece of writing advice you ever received (rhymes with “throw, don’t smell”) you know you can’t just come out and say “She felt very nervous, and also lovesick and sad.” Actually, technically, you could. There isn’t a law. But you know that often feels clunky.
So instead you set out to demonstrate this news. How are we going to show that our gal is nervous and lovesick and sad at the same time?
I see many students assuming that “show don’t tell” means we shouldn’t give any information whatsoever; that we should write fiction like a screenplay. Well, that’s what screenplays are for. And moreover: movies aren’t just screenplays. In a movie, your character’s interiority is brought to life not just by words and actions but by the face of an incredibly gifted actor, one who is trained in using facial muscles to convey emotion. Unless Jodie Foster is going to come over to my house and read your book to me, you don’t have that going for you. Giving your character zero interiority is simply not going to work. And look: Fiction is more capable of deep interiority than any other art form. Neglect this tool at your peril.
Faced with the challenge of not ignoring our characters’ internal lives, but also not coming right out and naming the emotion, many of us gravitate to the same move: the old cardiopulmonary check-in, the report on either the heart or the respiratory system or both. In other words, we make the interior literally internal.
She felt her breath catch.
Her heart skipped a beat.
Her heart sped up.
She tried to remember to breathe.
Her heart pounded so loudly she was sure everyone else could hear it.
Her heart felt like it was about to beat its way out of her chest.
She let out a breath she hadn’t even known she’d been holding.
Granted, there might be some throat business too. Something caught in the throat, a lump in the throat, a twinge in the throat. Perhaps some stinging eyes, some burning cheeks. There’s a problem here, of course. The cardiopulmonary descriptions have been played out, and have become writerly clichés. (My sincere apologies here to everyone who has ever used let out a breath she didn’t even know she’d been holding, which I firmly believe to be every writer ever.) Add to this the fact that we don’t really think that much, honestly, about our hearts and lungs in the moments when we feel emotion. Of course anyone who’s ever had a panic attack can tell you lots of stuff about overthinking it all, but really: If your wife tells you she’s leaving you for the man it turns out is really the father of the child you thought was yours, are you seriously going to stop and think about the catch in your throat?
In my new novel, The Great Believers, I have a main character who deals with a lot of shock, a lot of bad news. It’s the height of the AIDS epidemic in Chicago, and without giving specifics away, he’s learning of friends’ infections and friends’ deaths, and various pieces of news make him fear for his own health. It gave me a lot of opportunity to write poor cardiopulmonary prose, beat myself up for it, and try again. As I called myself out, as I let myself keep only one out of ten heart/lung sentences and changed the rest, here are some of the strategies I came up with:
While action alone isn’t enough (remember, this is not a movie), it can be a start. And action works for point of view characters as well as characters observed from the outside. We have to be careful, though, of stock-image gestures. Your nervous guy taps his foot or checks his watch, and it can feel like bad community theater. Could he, instead, rub incessantly at a scuff on his shoe? Could he have the habit of licking his teeth, especially when he’s nervous? Could he start rummaging through his friend’s fridge uninvited, taking out cheese slices and then putting them back in? What if you gave him a prop? Put a Chinese takeout menu in his hands, and he could roll it into a tight cylinder, or fray the edges, or fold that thing into a paper airplane and shoot it across the room. You know what I don’t miss? This guy’s pounding heart. You know what I’m not dying to know about? The status of his bronchial tubes.
Okay, let’s stick with Nervous Guy. I like him, he’s my soul mate. Nervous Guy is waiting backstage to make a speech. He doesn’t like public speaking, and his ex is in the audience. Poor Nervous Guy. Granted, his heart is likely pounding, but let’s focus instead on his brain. The stage was brightly lit. Jake tried to remember how his feet worked, how he was going to walk out there. Would he look for Renee in the third row? No, that was a terrible idea. Focus on the speech. Focus on the first word. What the hell was the first word? We’ve got some acknowledged thought in there (“tried to remember”) and some good old free indirect discourse (For instance, “Focus on the speech”—thought presented directly, with no clunky “he thought to himself” tags).
Maybe we don’t want Nervous Guy’s thoughts so directly on display. In fact, maybe NG isn’t really in touch with his emotions. So how about some memory, instead? The stage was brightly lit. He hadn’t been on a stage since 11th grade, since he’d landed a chorus role in Once Upon a Mattress and awkwardly shuffled through his back-row choreography, praying to God that somehow he’d catch Melissa Sexton’s eye but that no one else in the world would see him. We’ve left the present moment behind, but we’re getting a corollary story here, one that speaks to some of the stuff surfacing in NG’s psyche. What are we, after all, if not the sum of our memories? Or maybe we try something really tangential: The stage was brightly lit. The common luna moth, Jake knew, would fly towards any light, would use that pool of streetlamp illumination as a mating ground. Adult luna moths had no mouths. Living for only one week, they did not need, in their adult forms, to eat. Born to find the light and then die. So, Nervous Guy is into bugs. Who knew?
Specific physical interiority:
Maybe we do want to go physical with Nervous Guy, but we aren’t up for his heart beating its way out of his chest. Let’s, I don’t know, go wild and pick another body part! Any other body part! He has a foot that always aches in the rain, but also when he’s nervous. He has an old appendectomy scar that sometimes throbs. His ears ring whenever he freaks out. His lips are chapped, and when he’s nervous he bites the skin and now they’re bleeding, and he can taste the blood. Maybe he even has asthma, and we can talk about those symptoms rather than just his quickening breath. Really, this guy is a physical mess.
But I really want to write about his heart! you cry. The world must know about Nervous Guy’s heart and lungs! Okay, I will not deny you. Just… can we do a little better? Can we come up with some figurative language we haven’t heard a million times before? His breath snagged, a sweater on a thorn bush. His heart zipped around his chest like a balloon losing air. His heart did an awkward, tripping foxtrot. He sucked in oxygen like it was vodka. His lungs wrapped around his heart, and together, those organs attempted to strangle him. To be honest I’m not in love with any of those, in large part because they look exactly like what they are—namely, attempts to render the clichéd original through rather strained metaphors. But I’d rather read about the foxtrotting heart than the one trying to beat its way out of his chest.
Hey, listen: I could write a whole other essay on eyes. This one isn’t about our point of view characters; it’s about secondary characters, ones our guy is looking at. NG gets out there on stage and spots Renee in the audience, and you know how he can tell that she’s disconcerted to see him there? Yep, it’s those eyes, which somehow, although he’s fifty feet away, he can very clearly see the color of. And, yeah, okay, we do read a lot of our cues from the eyes. But do a Control+F on “eyes” in your document, and you’ll know if you’re overusing them. What if the character were wearing sunglasses? (Weird fashion choice, Renee. You’re in a theater. What the hell?) How else would you pick up on someone’s mood? Now take the sunglasses away, and keep the gesture, the action, the body language. Keep Nervous Guy’s figurative speech about the way she’s sitting. There she sat, an inscrutable obelisk. There she sat, her chin lasered at the stage. There she sat, still and –
Okay, no, I’m not writing that essay. We were talking about interiority. We were talking about the many ways we can dig into emotion, reaction, thought. We were talking about letting go of the collective clichés we hadn’t even known we were holding.
It’s hard, but you know what’s harder? Writing characters you don’t really know. Get into their bodies, get into their brains (get out of their hearts and lungs) and get to know them. That, or just send Jodie Foster over here with your book already.
REBECCA MAKKAI is the Chicago-based author of the short story collection Music for Wartime, which appeared in 2015, and of the novels The Hundred-Year House, winner of the Chicago Writers Association award, and The Borrower, a Booklist Top Ten Debut which has been translated into eight languages. Her short fiction won a 2017 Pushcart Prize, and was chosen for The Best American Short Stories for four consecutive years (2008-2011). The recipient of a 2014 NEA fellowship, Makkai is on the MFA faculty at Sierra Nevada college and has taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop, Tin House, and Northwestern University.