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Feelings Without Names

Mass-1024x698 [1]The fleeting beauty of life.  The irony of it all.  A nameless dread.  The exquisite ache of inexpressible love.

Is there a greater art than evoking a feeling that has no name?  When readers feel those it’s magic.  It’s pure human connection, silent but nevertheless potent heart to heart sharing.  It’s like when couples who’ve known each other forever exchange a look.  Who needs words?  The look says it all.

Nameless emotional experiences can be dark, too.  When we leave the light on, shudder or feel sick inside at the horror of human cruelty, we are feeling something less specific and yet larger than any feeling we can label.  The same goes for sensing the presence and reality of God.  For those who have felt that even sublime words like humility, joy, wonder and awe are inadequate.

Ironically, in fiction there is only one way to get across a feeling with no name: words.  How is that supposed to work?  How can you evoke something nameless without naming it?  Obviously we are here discussing evoking emotion.  We are talking not about telling, but about showing in its highest form.

The least effective way to evoke unstated emotion is with pregnant pauses, “significant” looks, or gestures like shrugs or the dismissive wave of a hand.  Overused devices have little effect.  Snorts, grunts, and exasperated huffs—Women!  Men!—are similarly pale.

[pullquote]Wonder doesn’t arise when readers don’t have to wonder.   When the obvious is implied the feeling that readers experience does, unfortunately, have a name: indifference.[/pullquote]

By the same token, why bother to evoke in readers feelings that can be readily identified and which have accurate names?  There’s no magic in that.  Wonder doesn’t arise when readers don’t have to wonder.   When the obvious is implied the feeling that readers experience does, unfortunately, have a name: indifference.

The art we’re seeking is the evocation of tacit feelings that leave the reader helpless to explain and speechlessly certain that they have felt exactly this themselves.  Unique feelings are situation-specific.   They flare as brightly as fireworks and perish just as quickly, leaving nothing to hold except the memory of having experienced something fragile and elusive, an excitement or trepidation that is at once real yet impossible to convey or recreate.

How can this be done?

The mysterious Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, whose books were recently described by The New York Times as feminist potboilers, is good at capturing feelings that cannot be named.  She is best known for her most recent works, her “Neapolitan Novels”, a series about two bright girls who grow up in Naples but whose adult paths diverge even as they remain friends.  The third in the sequence, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014), picks up the friends later in life.  The one who left Naples, Elena, has established herself as a novelist.  Her friend Lina remains in their home city, divorced and working in a factory.  The novel’s opening finds Elena again in Naples visiting Lina.  While on a walk they come across the dead body of another childhood friend who collapsed in a flowerbed next to a church.  Following this unsettling episode, Elena contemplates the city, which has changed—and not:

Every year, in other words, it seemed to me worse.  In that season of rains, the city had cracked yet again, an entire building had buckled onto one side, like a person who, sitting in an old chair, leans on the worm-eater arm and it gives way.  Dead, wounded.  And shouts, blows, cherry bombs.  The city seemed to harbor in its guts a fury that couldn’t get out and therefore eroded it from the inside, or erupted in pustules on the surface, swollen with venom against everyone, children, adults, old people, visitors from other cities, Americans from NATO, tourists of every nationality, the Neapolitans themselves.  How could one endure in that place of disorder and danger, on the outskirts, in the center, on the hills, at the foot of Vesuvius?

Elena’s extended lament about Naples finally turns to her friend Lina, who warns Elena not to write about her, which as we easily see is exactly what Elena is doing.  The passage is much longer than I’ve shown here, and is ripe with—well, what exactly?  I would call it fear of aging, a sense that life has moved along without repairing its crumbling infrastructure, an ache for a friend who has drifted down a different path, the knowledge that the journey isn’t done and yet death could be as close as the nearest flowerbed.

Is Elena talking about Naples or about herself?  The answer is pretty obvious, no?  Elena has told us nothing about how she feels about her life at this moment and yet she has expressed everything we need to know.  We feel her feelings without hearing them named.

What we see from this is that “nameless” feelings do actually have names, it’s just that these feelings are 1) conflicting, layered or complex, and 2) they are filtered not through the self-reflection of a point-of-view character but through that character’s observation and apprehension of things external to self.

In other words, to take us inward to something inchoate it is best to detail something outward that stands in for that inner state.  Nameless feelings swirl when characters project themselves onto things other than themselves.

So, let’s turn this insight into a tool.

When your protagonist has strong feelings about something, your readers must examine their own feelings.  Do they feel likewise or differently?  Do they approve or disapprove?  The conflict they feel emanating from your protagonist they will seek to resolve in their own minds.  That engagement is what you want.  There’s a good chance that it will be emotional.  Your readers will have feelings but those feelings will be difficult to pin down.

That in essence is the delivery of feelings without names.  We’ve all felt the fleeting beauty of life and will again when your protagonist captures it by talking about something other than the fleeting beauty of life.  Put differently again, you’re not evoking something that doesn’t exist but something too complex, contradictory and irresolvable for readers to easily tag.

All feelings have names.  The art is in making them too elusive to quickly describe.

[A note to the WU community: I’ll be on hiatus for the next two months for family reasons, see you again in November.]

How are you using unspoken feelings in your current project?  Which novels have made you feel things that can’t be easily expressed?

About Donald Maass [2]

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [3]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [4], The Fire in Fiction [5], Writing the Breakout Novel [6]and The Career Novelist [7].