In her book, The Novelist’s Guide, Margret Geraghty reminds us that the ability to evoke emotion around the characters in the stories we write is the single most important skill to master. Here’s an extract from Katherine Mansfield’s, The Fly, that does just that.
A fly has fallen into an ink pot and can’t get out. The other character, referred to only as the boss, watches it struggle with glee.
“Help! Help! said those struggling legs. But the sides of the ink pot were wet and slippery; it fell back again and began to swim. The boss took up a pen, picked up the fly out of the ink, and shook it on a piece of blotting paper. For a fraction of a second, it lay still on the dark patch that oozed around it. Then the front legs waved, took hold, and, pulling its small, sodden body up, it began the immense task of cleaning the ink from its wings … it succeeded at last, and, sitting down, it began, like a minute cat, to clean its face. Now one could imagine that the little front legs rubbed against each other, lightly, joyfully. The horrible danger was over; it had escaped; it was ready for life again.
“Learn to evoke emotion through your characters. It is one of the keys to successful writing.”
But then, the boss had an idea. He plunged the pen back into the ink, leaned his thick wrist on the blotting paper, and, as the fly tried its wings, down came a heavy blot. What would it make if that? The little beggar seemed absolutely cowed, stunned, and afraid to move because of what would happen next. But then, as if painfully, it dragged itself froward. The front legs waved, caught hold, and more slowly this time, the task began from the beginning.”
This goes on until the fly is dead. If we can feel compassion for a fly, imagine what we can feel for animals and humans.
The writer may often amplify an emotion by providing new information to the reader but hide it from a character who may not yet understand it, such as a child. In my novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, I use this technique subtly to suggest a sense of unease in the relationship between a mother and her brother-in-law, as experienced through the sensibility of a child:
“One hot afternoon, my father’s older brother, Fanos, a mechanic with the merchant Greek navy, sailed into our lives, without warning, like a bottle washing out to shore. He carried a small black suitcase in his right hand. The hand was stained by a faded blue tattoo of an anchor that started at the wrist and ended at the knuckles. I found myself staring at it at every opportunity.
Would it be fine if he stayed with us for several days, while his ship underwent repairs at the port of Piraeus, he wanted to know?
My father, who seemed both pained and glad to see him, said it would be, if that was all right with my mother. My mother had nodded and rushed out to the backyard to collect the washing from the clothes line. She had trudged back in and made straight for the bedroom where she proceeded to fold, unfold, and refold the clothes. She did this so many times that I thought she was testing out some new game, before asking me to play.”
The boy may not understand the underlying conflict, but the reader does and that makes it doubly effective.
Learn to evoke emotion through your characters. It will draw readers and audiences into your stories.
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