Saturday, March 18, 2006

A Different Kind of Listening

Detecting the emotional content of a voice requires a different kind of listening.

No longer can we rely solely on our ears. We need to feel the emotion in a voice, and to do this means using our hearts as well as our ears.

Listening with our hearts lets us feel the underlying emotion--the fear or joy, sadness or hope--that flows through a character's veins.

But how are we to identify this emotional quality?

Where do we begin?

Although it may seem obvious, listen to the language of the story--the author's choice of words, the details the narrator has selected to share.

Listen for the rhythm of a pulse, and listen to the tone--whether it's formal or informal, stiff or loose, warm and inviting, cool and aloof.

Then, ask yourself how you feel about the language... and the main character.

What do your feelings reveal? Not just about the character, but about your response to the character?

Let's listen to a handful of voices and try to hear the emotional currents rippling through them:
Basketball is my thing. I can hoop. Case closed. I'm six four and I got the moves, the eye, and the heart. You can take my game to the bank and wait around for the interest. With me it's not like playing a game, it's like the only time I'm being for real. (from Slam! by Walter Dean Myers)
What do you hear in this passage?

Who is speaking?

What's the most important thing in the character's mind? Basketball? Playing the game? Proving himself on the court? Or feeling something different when he's playing than when he's not?

We know he's tall (six four), well-coordinated (he's got the moves), a player with drive and determination. We know, too, that he can play well (in his own mind, at least). And... what else?

How would you describe his emotional state? Secure? Fragile? Despite his prowess on the court, does he feel confident when he steps off the court?

What does Myers intend for us to feel as we read this passage? How does Myers succeed in linking us with this character? He merges our heart with this character's... so that we can feel it beating beside our own... but how does Myers do this?

Here's another voice:
"What if they find us? What's gonna happen?"
Harrison's eyes snapped open and he gave me his meanest stare. "Now, you be quiet, child, and git some rest 'cause we got another long run ahead of us. I don't want to hear no more of your talkin."
I kept quiet then, but the questions were still running back and forth in my head. What if I had left footprints in the field? What if Master hired dogs to track us down? What if it didn't rain? What if they found us sitting in the tree? What if they shot us down, as if we were nothing more than a pair of foolish wild birds?
(from Trouble Don't Last by Shelley Pearsall)
Listen closely... what do you hear in this passage?

Do you hear the fear in the character's voice? Can you feel his fear?

What do we learn from this passage about his life? He's a child ("Now, you be quiet, child...") and tired... and his journey is far from over... but what else?

The characters are running from someone or something... and the danger of being discovered is great... so great that the boy must remain silent.

But the silence only gives the boy's imagination freedom to design ways for their escape to fail--a series of what if's... his existence dependent not on his own actions but on random luck. If the master doesn't send out dogs. If it doesn't rain. If they're discovered in the tree.

Notice how the boy's consciousness reflects his way of looking at the world... his way of being... as an escaped slave. Having run away, he now can feel only the foolishness of his attempt to gain freedom, an attempt no different than a "pair of foolish birds."

How does the author bring you inside the story? What words does she use to let you feel the boy's fear, sense of isolation, and abandonment? The danger that the escaped slaves are in? The growing tension over the boy's future?

Now listen to this voice:
I spent the reception listening to comments about how tall I was, everyone trying to make it sound like it was a good thing to be a giant at fifteen. I towered over everyone, it seemed, and Ashley kept coming up behind me and poking me hard in the center of my back, which was my mother's subtle and constant signal that I was slouching. What I really wanted to do was curl up in a ball under the buffet table and hide from everyone. After four hours, several plates of food, and enough small talk to make me withdraw into myself permanently, we finally got to go home."
(from Sarah Dessen's That Summer)
What do you hear now? And, on a deeper level, what do you feel?

What details provide keys to the emotional state of this character? How do we know what we know about her? Which words, which actions, make us feel a certain way? Why?

Is she confident about herself? Happy with who she is? Pleased with her body? Does she like to spend time with people or does she prefer to spend time alone? What's her relationship with her mother? Her sister (who pokes her in the back)? How does she deal with things that she dislikes? Does she tell people what she's feeling? Does she have the courage to exit a situation that's making her feel uncomfortable?

How does this scene make you feel? And how does the author place you in the character's shoes?

One last voice:
I felt tears stinging my eyes as the bus pulled out of the station. It would take me to the Mehtas' village, but it would not bring me back. Maa must have had the same thought; she reached for my hand and held it tightly.
Mr. Mehta was there when the bus stopped. He was a short man with a small round face and a pair of large, dark-rimmed glasses. It was hard to see his face behind the glasses. I made my best ceremonial namaskar, saluting him and even touching his feet, but he gave me only a quick look. Instead he turned to Baap and, after a courteous but quick greeting, asked, "You have brought the dowry, sir?" Until that moment I had believed it was me the Mehta family wanted; now it seemed that what they cared for most was the dowry. Was my marriage to be like the buying of a sack of yams in the market-place?
(from Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan)
What are the emotions that you feel when you listen to this voice? And why do you feel them?

We are present at a leave-taking and an arrival... events that will change the character's life. By sharing certain details with us, the author gives us a glimpse into the young girl's heart: how much she cares for her family, especially her Maa and Baap, and how much she will miss them.

Even though her parents accompany her on the journey, she's already imagining her life without them... as a married girl in the future. And we're given a glimpse into how she feels about herself and that future when she gets off the bus and meets her future father-in-law, who virtually ignores her respectful greeting and shows interest in only one thing: her dowry.

How does that rebuff make the character feel?

And how do you feel as you move deeply inside the narator's point of view?

What is it in the language that gives you this feeling? Is it the way the character finds herself ignored by Mr. Mehta? Or is it the way that she feels about being ignored... and the way that she expresses her emotional state in words ("Was my marriage to be like buying a sack of yams in the marketplace?")

Listen with your heart. Try to find the emotional thread running through these passages.

If you listen to a story with your heart, not just your ears, you should be able to slit open the story at any point... and not only hear the quality of emotion in a voice but feel the emotional pulse of the story, the character's heart beating steadily beside your own.

The examples that we looked at above were from YA novels, but you could perform the same exercise with picture books or middle grade readers.

Try it, see what happens... and let us know what you hear.

For further reference:

Walter Dean Myers: and an interview at

Shelley Pearsall:

Sarah Dessen:

Gloria Whelan:

Also, Canadian illustrator Ian Wallace describes how he probes a text for an emotional link before he begins work at


Barbara W. Klaser said...

I've often thought the best writers are people who've learned to really look and really listen.

jo'r said...

I heard an interesting—well, sort of—discussion on an analysis of literary ‘voice,’ on a recent NPR interview of retired Auburn professor, Dr. Wayne Flynt. Flynt spoke about an old rumor that Truman Capote, not Capote’s old friend, Harper Lee, was the actual author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” (The rumor may have been prompted by the fact that Lee never published another book). In part, Flynt’s analysis was that the voices of the characters are totally different literary voices than that of Capote. Flynt said that writers simply don’t assume another literary voice or style from their own. That seems like a creative straitjacket that shouldn’t exist, I hope. I prefer the possibility of assuming a completely different literary voice/style than my own to suit certain fiction. Then again, maybe we’re speaking of different concepts of literary voice/style.