Let’s start with a picture. After all, aren’t novels one picture after another of characters—both inside and out?
What do you see? This Bernini sculpture, which you can view in Rome’s elaborately decorated Santa Maria della Vittoria Church, has a story behind it.
The title, “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa,” clarifies that it’s a male angel, and that his hand, yes, indeed, is exactly where we suspected but were reluctant to admit. Is the angel really doing that? Yes.
Here’s a closer look.
What captures the ecstasy? The Saint’s flung-back head, the arched body, the open mouth, the foot bodiless enough to seem devoid of bones. The sculpture melds earth and heaven—keen awareness of body with the ultimate transcendence of it. The sculpture conveys all this with such subtlety that without the tantalizing suggestion, much of this might go unnoticed. What a terrific recipe for fiction.
Tip: The more readers discover emotion, rather than being bludgeoned with it, the happier they'll be.
How does that work?
Intense emotion, such as tragedy, disaster, euphoria, or ecstasy needs implication. Because readers already know how they feel about such events. The more you “tell” them then, particularly with judgments like “horrible,” “painful,” “terrifying,” or joyous,” then the less readers can feel what they already do without your help. Abstract words, especially over-used ones, separate readers from plot, much the way adding the word “rapturous” to Bernini’s title would only interfere. Just as he uses the subtle folds of the marble—and what that implies—to make his point, use the events—not the descriptions—in your novel to make yours.
Literally what’s “beneath the words,” subtext involves what characters say indirectly. A wife reluctant to confront her husband overtly might observe, “You needed another fishing rod?” A father might freak at his daughter’s low-cut, skin-tight tank top, and mutter, “Is that all you’re wearing? “Meaning implied but never vocalized both mimics real-life interaction and leaves readers free to interpret. This resembles the way one can scrutinize Bernini’s sculpture and infer the feelings of the angel and the saint.
With rare exceptions, the more intense the emotion, then the more subtly and quietly you ought to describe it. Defy this rule of both craft and psychology, and the likely result is melodrama, or a portrayal that feels sensational rather than emotionally gripping. Neither reader nor writer wants a novel to read like a tabloid.
How do you whisper?
- Use concrete language that evokes one of the five senses: sight, sound, taste, touch, or smell.
- Avoid judgmental conclusions like “anguished,” “devastated,” or “heart-stopping.”
- Focus more on what happens than how scary or wonderful or terrific it is.
Here’s the ultimate understatement: trust your audience. Bernini did.