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.
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.
Take fifteen minutes to write a scene with two characters who are in love. How will you convey the emotion to your readers? When you're done, share in the Pro Member Practice Workshop here, and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!
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