Today’s a time of chocolate, roses, expensive jewelry and store-bought poems. But in either real or fictional worlds, how much love do these offerings convey? Is there something a bit facile about 77% cocoa or a new watch? What’s the best way to express any emotion, including love?
“All human happiness and misery take the form of action,” Aristotle said. It’s easy to buy carnations, say “I love you,” or keep repeating, “I’m sorry.” Why is the quote that “actions seem louder than words” so famous?
Because it’s true. The opening of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory illustrates:
Mr. Tench went out to look for his ether cylinder: out into the blazing Mexican sun and the bleaching dust. A few buzzards looked down from the roof with shabby indifference: he wasn’t carrion yet. A faint feeling of rebellion stirred in Mr. Tench’s heart, and he wrenched up a piece of the road with splintering finger-nails and tossed it feebly up at them.
Yes, Greene comments by mentioning “indifference” and “rebellion.” Yet the memorable part is the protagonist’s behavior: braving the heat, tearing at the road, taunting the buzzards.
In Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones, she captures atmosphere not by describing it but “showing” hope and connection, however inhuman:
And then a cat, its belly sagging with young, ambled over and brushed her leg with its tail—the one warm gesture in a cold country.
Marshall needn’t explain that no amount of frustration will make this protagonist give up; the cat conveys this for her. Through action.
Like the cat, characters must do something. Otherwise, the writer forces readers to accept narrator claims about emotions, decisions, and options.
Jonathan Franzen often comments on his characters’ emotions—but only to add depth and insight. These few sentences capture a range of emotion through the behavior of Pip and her boyfriend:
Pip shut the door again, to block out the words, but even with the door closed she could hear the fighting. The people who’d bequeathed a broken world to her were shouting at each other viciously. Jason sighed and took her hand. She held it tightly.
Even without reading this extraordinary novel, you know that the overheard accusations are unbearable, that Jason wants to support her but is helpless to help, and that she clings to him because he’s there and that’s all she has. The physical responses capture this with active verbs: “shut,” “block,” “closed,” “shouting,” “sighed,” and “held.” Something happens.
Something happens with a gift, too, of course. Who wouldn’t want a carefully chosen one? But loving acts exert greater power. And in fiction? Store-bought expressions of love, pain, fury, or terror can only “tell.”