4 Engaging Ways James Baldwin Captures Emotion

by Monica M. Clark | 17 comments

Our readers pick up books to fall in love with characters, and that requires getting their emotions on the page in a believable way. Today, let's learn how to write engaging emotion from the the great James Baldwin and his novel If Beale Street Could Talk.

4 Engaging Ways James Baldwin Captures Emotion

Set in Harlem, Beale Street is about Tish and Fonny, a young couple in love who have known each other forever. Tish discovers she’s pregnant just as Fonny is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. According to the book jacket, it tells a typical story that Beale Street in New York City might tell during the 1960s.

4 Ways Baldwin Conveyed Emotion

Baldwin is known by many for being a political writer during the Civil Rights movement, but what struck me about Beale Street was how he conveyed this emotion. He does such a great job making me feel Tish’s love, desperation, etc. throughout the book such that I found myself thinking, “How did he do that?”

How did Baldwin so successfully evoke emotion in Beale Street?

Here are some of the answers I came up with:

1. Baldwin Created Emotion By Forcing the Couple Apart

The novel begins in Tish’s point of view, and we learn very early that her boyfriend Fonny is in jail. Although the details of the situation are revealed later in the novel, his absence adds a level of intensity for both Tish and the reader.

The fact that Fonny is in jail also gives Tish an organic reason to talk about him. She misses him and the memories are carrying her through a difficult moment. It feels natural, making the reader sympathize and want to listen.

2. Baldwin Heightened Emotion with Physical Intimacy

I wouldn’t call Beale Street a Romance novel; however, Baldwin does include one or two scenes of physical intimacy between the characters.

I don’t think the goal of these scenes was to get the reader hot and bothered. Rather, the author seemed to want to convey the relationship in a real way, and that included sex. Those scenes added both physical and emotional intimacy to the story. It created a new layer of depth to the emotion, just like such acts can in real life.

3. Baldwin Avoided Philosophizing

As evidenced by other things he has written, Baldwin had a lot of thoughts about the political, social, and psychological ills of the world.

But neither Baldwin nor the characters spend a lot of time musing on the meaning of life, the nature of men or women, or anything else in Beale Street. They don’t analyze or philosophize, which keeps the reader from being distracted by potentially tedious language. Baldwin used simple language and in the moments where the reader otherwise might have been thinking, they were instead feeling.

4. Baldwin Capitalized on His Characters’ Unreliability

To me, the Fonny character had a lot of flaws. He loved Tish, and seemed to be a good man, but there were also moments when he was controlling and overly critical of Tish.

What was interesting to me was that Tish described these scenes in almost an admiring way. For example, she tells a story when Fonny describes her as ugly, but the rose-colored glasses never come off. There’s no bitterness or anger at the memory. Instead, she’s just as lovey dovey describing him at his worst as she is at his best.

That rang very true to me. Love has a blinding quality to it and, even though I got annoyed at Fonny in those moments, it made me feel Tish’s love for him even more.

Baldwin Makes Readers Feel

Baldwin used these strategies to capture his characters' emotions and convey them powerfully on the page. Ultimately, it left me feeling a strong connection with them, deepening my appreciation for the novel.

What do you do to evoke emotion in your stories? Let us know in the comments.

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Monica is a lawyer trying to knock out her first novel. She lives in D.C. but is still a New Yorker. You can follow her on her blog or on Twitter (@monicamclark).

17 Comments

  1. EndlessExposition

    This scene is related to a practice I posted on “How to Survive the Second Draft of Your Book”. Reviews are always appreciated!

    Jaime took a sip of her drink and, closing her eyes, tipped her head back against the couch cushions. She let the liquor sit on her tongue for a moment before swallowing. Andy’s quiet laugh prompted her to open her eyes again. Andy lounged on the floor at Jaime’s feet. Earlier on, to give herself more mobility while hefting boxes, she’d traded her tight skirt for a pair of Jaime’s jeans. She looked good in them, but then, Andy looked good in anything. “What’s funny?”

    “You are. I’ve never seen someone get so contemplative over their booze.”

    Jaime shrugged. “What can I say? I’m a simple woman.”

    Andy snorted. “You are the most unnecessarily complicated woman I’ve ever known.”

    Jaime smiled lazily. “Because you were kind enough to help me move in today, I’ll let that slide.”

    “How gracious of you.” Andy set her glass down on the table and rocked back on her heels. She looked Jaime over, toying with a strand of her hair, a sure sign of deep thought. “How are you, Mal?”

    Oh hell. Jaime knew this conversation would happen eventually but she’d hoped they’d have a few more drinks in them before it did. Still, she didn’t intend to go down without a fight. “A little tired, to tell you the truth. I may get an early night. These bones aren’t as young as they used to be.”

    Andy scowled. “That’s not what I meant and you know it. Stop avoiding the question.”

    Jaime sighed. “I’m fine. My shoulder gets better every day. The doctor says I might even make a full recovery.”

    “And the nightmares?”

    Jaime’s grip on her glass tightened reflexively, and she silently cursed her body’s betrayal. She made herself take her next sip slowly and repeated, “I’m fine.”

    Andy’s eyes flashed dangerously. “I sat next to your hospital bed for a week. I listened to you screaming in your sleep every night, so don’t you dare tell me you’re fine.”

    “I had an infection, Andy. I was delirious.”

    Andy groaned and leaned her forehead on the heel of her palm. “Mal, don’t shut me out, please.”

    “I wouldn’t have to,” Jaime snapped, “if you weren’t so irritating.”

    Andy snatched her glass up again. “Christ, you behave like a child!” They drank in silence. Andy stood and started pacing. She turned her glare on the record player. Jaime had put on her prized copy of Tosca, the original 1953 recording. “Do we have to listen to this screeching?”

    “Change it if you want to.” Andy flipped through the sleeves on the bookshelf and pulled one out. She swapped the records and put the needle down. The Shirelles’ “Tonight’s the Night” crooned from the record player. Andy watched the record spin, running a finger around the rim of her glass in tandem. The red lipstick didn’t hide how drawn her mouth looked, how tired. Jaime felt herself softening. “They’re just dreams, Andy. They can’t hurt me.”

    Andy finally looked at her. She came back to the couch and sat down next to Jaime. She put her hand on top of her friend’s, and a silent apology for their earlier outbursts passed between them. “I know. It’s not the dreams in and of themselves that worry me. Have you ever thought about therapy?”

    Jaime laughed. “Me? Can you imagine? After one session, the shrink would need therapy. Besides, I have other things to do.”

    Andy smiled softly, and maybe a little sadly. “Well someone needs to take care of you.”

    Now it was Jaime’s turn to smile. “And that someone is you, is it?”

    “If you want.” The hand on top of Jaime’s slid to the inside of her thigh. Jaime paused. The warmth of Andy’s hand diffused through her jeans very pleasantly. In the thirty three years they had known each other, Jaime and Andy had never been what you would call a couple. But starting sometime during their college years they had formed an arrangement of sorts. Well, it wasn’t really an arrangement anymore. It was just the natural order of things. Andy was familiar and comforting and Jaime trusted her like no one else. Jaime’s relationship with Andy had been longer than any other she’d ever had with a woman, even if it wasn’t romantic. It wasn’t romantic.

    Andy, misinterpreting Jaime’s silence, began to withdraw. “Or if you don’t want to that’s fi – ”

    Jaime raised an eyebrow. “Did I say I didn’t want to?”

    “No, but it’s been a long day and we did just have a fight so if you’re not in the mood I understa – ”

    Jaime rolled her eyes and set her glass down on the table. Slipping her arms around
    Andy’s waist she deftly flipped her onto her back and moved to hover over her on hands and knees. “You’re talking too much.”

    Andy visibly relaxed, sinking into the cushions. She reached up and took hold of Jaime’s collar. “No talking, then.”

    “No talking.”

    The couch was a little cramped, Andy’s lipstick was messy, and they both tasted like liquor. But when they kissed, for the first time that day Jaime felt like she was home. The only sound in the room were the soft strains of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” from the record player. And eventually even that faded away.

    Reply
    • Lauren Timmins

      I love the way you included a glimpse into a darker period of Jaime’s past, but didn’t let it take over the overarching narrative. These two seem like they’d be a wonderful couple <3 You did an amazing job

    • EndlessExposition

      Thank you! The level of denial they’re in is hilarious to write.

  2. Paula Milner

    As new writer learning the ropes, I loved this article. It has helped me get a better understanding on how to approach short stories in different ways. I will practice using emotions and post it later.

    Reply
    • Monica

      Awesome!! I doubt you’re a really a “new writer.” If you’ve felt compelled to write- in journals or anything else, then you’ve always been a writer!

  3. Lauren Timmins

    She sat on the floor of her room, pressing her toes in and out of the carpet as she pressed herself closer to the bed frame. The edge of the room was briefly illuminated, and she watched the light come and go with a passing truck. A soft rumble, and then silence was restored.
    His jacket was lying in her lap. She returned her attention to it, running her finger along the wool lining, the padded elbow patches, and finally to the missing button, three down from the collar. She smiled softly to herself – the missing button had been her fault. It was an old, red flannel jacket, his favorite. When they first started dating she had complained about it, but after a few years she came to accept it. She grew to love the smell of lumber and smoke that the jacket carried into the house, to treasure the bits of woods that fell out of it when she shook it out before washing it.
    Washing it.
    Her fingers dug into the flannel and she pulled it tight against her chest, bowing her head and pressing her face into the fabric. The smell, despite all of her efforts, had faded three months ago. But she closed her eyes and breathed, and for a moment she felt like she was standing in the woods with him again.
    Another truck rattled past the house. She stared out the window, thinking, then shoved herself to her feet. She gently laid the jacket out on the bed and flicked on the light, picking up the telephone.
    ——————————-

    He was wide awake. He rolled over, and the godforsaken clock threw a big, fat, 2:16 am in his face.
    He groaned and rubbed his eyes, deciding he needed a drink. He made his way out of the bed carefully, as not to wake the sleeping woman beside him. He looked at her for a moment, regarding the curve of her spine against the sheets and the way her hair fell across the pillow. His gaze wandered down to her feet, and then to the room itself. Cherry wood furniture – she told him it was “In” -, monochromatic paintings on the walls, a closet door covered in mirrors. His reflection bent down, tugged on his one pair of blue jeans, and shuffled out of the room.
    The kitchen was similar to the bedroom. Everything matched, and nothing was out of place. He opened the cabinet above the espresso maker and found his favorite tumbler, which Kelly insisted stay out of sight. Women. They couldn’t appreciate art – or in this case a grinning moose with a pitcher of beer in its hoof.
    He was just about to pour himself some whisky when the phone rang. He grabbed it, fumbling with the small buttons before pressing it against his ear.
    “Who the hell is this, and why are you calling at two in the goddamn morning?” he grunted, bringing the bottle straight to his lips.
    ———————————
    The woman held the phone away from her for a moment, stunned.
    “I’m… It’s me, It’s Georgia… Hale.”
    She heard a muted clink, and then he sucked in his breath. “Georgia.” he said, and exhaled slowly.
    “I don’t know what I was thinking, I, I couldn’t sleep-”
    “I couldn’t either.”
    The line went silent as they searched for something to say.
    “So… how’s, how’s Kaley?”
    The man laughed half heartedly. “Kelly. Her name’s Kelley… and she’s good, I guess.”
    “Oh, sorry,” Georgia drummed her fingers against her leg, “You know the funniest thing happened, I found that old jacket of yours the other day. The red one.” She was lying, the thing had never left her closet.
    “No!” The man smiled, and dragged a chair away from the table. “I loved that thing.”
    Georgia settled herself on top of her counter. “I know you did. I could bring it to you?”
    “No, no, Kelley… she would hate it. You can keep it, or get rid of it.”
    “I’ll hang on to it, just in case.”
    The man held his tumbler, and remembered where it had come from. He and Georgia had gone to Canada for a summer. He looked down at his jeans and realized that those were also a remnant of their relationship, though they had come at the very end. Georgia quickly brushed her eyes, and tried to ignore the burn in her throat.
    The man raised the bottle, and drank. “Georgia.”
    She cleared her throat. “Yes?”
    “I made a mistake.”
    Georgia closed her eyes, and tried to block the images of That Night. She had come home, to an unfamiliar car, to an unfamiliar coat in her doorway, and to the sounds of laughter in her bedroom.
    “I know.”
    “No, I mean,” he took another drink of whisky “I really screwed up. I married her.”
    Georgia closed her eyes. “I know.” she whispered, her voice breaking.
    “It should have been you.”
    “But you didn’t.”
    “But I didn’t.”
    The line went silent once more.
    “It’s really late.” The three words were barely a whisper, and not the ones she wanted to say. The ones she found on her lips when she woke up in the middle of the night. The ones she most desperately wanted to hear again, but never could.
    “Yeah.” The man sighed. “I guess we should go.”
    “Goodnight, James.”
    “I-”
    She pressed the phone into its cradle before he could say another word.
    He heard a click on the other end of the line, and turned the phone off. He set it down on the counter, put the tumbler back in the cabinet, and returned to his room. He placed himself on the edge of the bed, and left a valley between himself and the woman beside him.

    Reply
    • EndlessExposition

      This is very accurate, as well as well written. The precision of the details brings the characters to life. Job well done!

    • Monica

      I could definitely feel the tension here!! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  4. Jason Bougger

    This is an important topic, as emotions are what makes our characters real. It’s also one of the most difficult things to do for me and my fallback is usually to convey emotions through dialogue, which will often work, but can sometimes reveal itself as a substitute for showing through their actions.

    I think there’s a lot of good advice in this article, so thanks for post it.

    Reply
    • Bruce Carroll

      I almost always convey emotion (particularly romantic emotion) through either dialogue or inner monologue, and (when I go back and read those passages) it seems to work. In fact, some of the above practice sessions have bored me — no offense to the authors! Of course, I have a lot to learn.

    • Monica

      Thank you!! And I agree it’s hard, especially if you have an intellectual goal for your novel. It’s hard to get out of that mind set and write with emotion. That’s why I was sitting there trying to figure out how exactly Baldwin did so so effectively in this novel!

  5. Bruce Carroll

    Akiko had managed to find her way to a park. She could feel the warm sunshine on her face, but it did little to lift her spirits. She found a park bench and sat down. She could hear the sounds of children playing, birds chirping. For the rest of the world, life was going on as it always had.

    She unzipped her backpack and took her cell phone from the inner pocket where she always kept it. Feeling the buttons with her fingertips, she called Tommy.

    “Akiko?”

    “Hi, Tommy.”

    “Are you alright?”

    “I’m fine.”

    “Where are you?” He didn’t try to hide the concern in his voice.

    “I’m fine. I’m in a park, but I won’t say where. Just know I’m safe.”

    “How are you. . . getting by?”

    Akiko considered how much she should tell Tommy. If he knew where she had been staying – or could find out where she might stay in the future – whoever it was who was looking for her might find out. They might even force him to tell them. On the other hand, if she didn’t tell him anything, he would worry. He might even get his parents involved.

    “There are places for people like me,” she told him.

    “People like you?”

    “Homeless teens. Runaways. I had a hot meal, a shower, and a bed to sleep in last night. I’ll be fine. Just don’t go trying to figure out where I am.”

    Tommy didn’t answer right away. “What now?” he finally asked.

    Akiko thought.

    “Do you need me to send money?” Tommy asked when Akiko didn’t respond.

    “Honey,” she said. She bit her lip. She had never used any term of endearment for Tommy, and she felt awkward for doing so now. If he objected, he didn’t say anything, so she went on. “You can’t know where I am. Besides, I could be hiding for a long time.”

    “I know,” Tommy said. “I get it. I just want to help.”

    “It helps just hearing your voice.” Akiko became acutely aware of her growing desire to hold Tommy. “Tommy,” she said hesitantly, “I want you to do something.”

    “Name it.”

    “Tommy. . . don’t feel hung up on me, okay?”

    “Whaddaya mean?” he asked. She could hear the smile in his voice. She felt tears threatening to spill out of her eyes.

    “Go out with people. Date someone. Find a girlfriend.”

    “There’s no one but you, baby,” he said, trying to sound charming. He did.

    “Tommy!” Akiko said. She immediately regretted the harsh tone her voice had taken. She was valiantly fighting back tears. “I may be gone for a very long time. I may never see you again. Just don’t give up. . . y’know. . . your future. . . for me.”

    There was a long silence. “Akiko,” Tommy said at last. His voice was strong, resolute. “You’re the only one for me. There’s no one else. There never has been. I never kissed a girl before. I am ‘hung up’ on you, Akiko Yamada. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

    In that moment, Akiko lost the battle with her tears. “I love you, Tommy,” she choked.

    “Me, too.”

    Reply
  6. TerriblyTerrific

    My teacher in a journalism class always said to “Keep it Simple, Stupid.” KISS. It can be used for this writing as well as writing news stories.

    Reply
  7. At Home With Grandma

    This is a little unconventional, but a true life experience. I was the riding coach for this 13 year old.
    A squeal erupts from the inside of a car coming to a stop in the yard. Mom jumps out and helps Maddie out and hands her the white cane, and Maddie is off, coming as fast as she can toward Cloud, the love of her life! When she reaches him, she touches his face and he sniffs her, then she leans in for a hug and a kiss. Cloud nuzzles her as she squeals some more. This is a love affair of huge proportions on both sides; a moment greatly anticipated each week when Maddie and Mom come to Rising Son Youth Ranch for riding therapy. Cloud is the equine therapist, teaching Maddie unconditional love, respect for God’s creatures and that joy comes in the simple moments.
    Maddie is a tiny 13 year old who is legally blind, very hard of hearing, and speaks very little. She has trouble with balance and growth as well but that doesn’t stop her from enjoying life to the fullest. After brushing, more nuzzling and squealing, we get Cloud saddled and walk down to the riding ring with Maddie holding on to the end of the lead rope and Cloud following as close as he can with his nose to her back and hair, drinking in her scent.

    Reply
    • Monica

      Thanks for this! My one suggestion would be to heighten the use of the senses of smell, touch, etc. since Maddie is blind and hard of hearing. I think that could be really effective!

    • At Home With Grandma

      being new to this process, I’m not sure of the rules, is it ok to re-submit? I’ve done as suggested and would like more input please?

      A squeal erupts from the inside of a car coming to a stop in the yard. Mom jumps out and helps Maddie out and hands her the white cane, and Maddie is off, coming as fast as she can toward Cloud, the love of her life! When she reaches him, she touches his face and he sniffs her, smelling that little girl smell that is uniquely Maddie. She leans in for a hug and a kiss, feeling his soft nose and sniffing that horsey smell that is a combination of grass, sweat and just plain HORSE! While Maddie is hugging her friend, she always feels for his eyes, they fascinate her. Cloud nuzzles her as she squeals some more. This is a love affair of huge proportions on both sides; a moment greatly anticipated each week when Maddie and Mom come to Rising Son Youth Ranch for riding therapy. Cloud is the equine therapist, teaching Maddie unconditional love, respect for God’s creatures and that joy comes in the simple moments.
      Maddie is a tiny 13 year old who is legally blind, very hard of hearing, and speaks very little. She has trouble with balance and growth as well but that doesn’t stop her from enjoying life to the fullest. After brushing, more nuzzling and squealing, we get Cloud saddled and walk down to the riding ring with Maddie holding on to the end of the lead rope, stepping slowly and carefully on the gravel lane and Cloud following as close as he can with his nose to her back and hair, drinking in her scent.

  8. Deena

    Monica, I love this post! You really nailed the subject, and your insights will really help me in my own writing and in my blog. Deena

    Reply

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