Let’s say you know the feeling, you feel the feeling, that your story’s supposed to convey. How do you go about the work of putting the feeling into the fiction?

Let’s say you’ve got your character, this dad. Let’s say he really believes in the dad thing. He’s looked life over from every angle and concluded his best chance at meaning isn’t work or art or activism but family love. And his kids are such great kids. He took genetic credit for them as photogenic babies but now they’re eight, ten, and vessels of grace and personality and humor, magic things he knows he can’t have taught them. He loves their mother too, differently but not less sweetly with the kids at the center of his life. They’ve saved up and they’re taking the kids on an astronomy cruise, where they shut off all the outside lights on the ship every night and observe the pure, dark ocean sky. His whole life is an act of love basically unprecedented in human history, he knows this intellectually, but he feels—and this is the feeling you want to convey—like a dirty colander, like he’s covered and everything’s covered with that starchy pasta grime. He feels bleakly exhausted beneath it, even out on the glittering Pacific, some common, gluey, invisible film.

So, how would you convey it, the colander feeling, as you narrate your character’s family cruise? He buys the tickets—click—feels a sudden inkling of the colander feeling? He boards, Jamba Juice in hand, feeling again the same? His kids tell him how many decks and engines and berths—but still he feels all glued over? They watch the Perseids pour over the Pacific, but it’s like it’s all just one vast dirty colander, our sky?

Many inexpert fiction writers, I’ve noticed, approach fiction with this monotone insistence on emotion, each scene routing its nose toward the same affect. Scene…feeling. New scene…same feeling. Climactic scene…same feeling now climactically felt… But by then the feeling feels false. This dad is just depressed, we say, comprehending it thoroughly but not so much feeling it ourselves.

This habit of insisting scene after scene on the same emotion comes, I think, from a misconception of how fiction uses feeling. You read a great story, feel something intensely at the story’s end, and think, “Aha, fiction uses plot and image to deliver emotion.” But a story is not a machine that conveys a feeling. A story is a machine that uses feelings to think.

This dad—why does his dirty colander feeling matter, anyway? After his wife and kids are back in their cabin, he waits on the deck as the ship’s lights turn back on, watching his pupils constrict and the stars retreat. This, now, he tells himself, is my joy of joys. Through all the professional development retreats and marriage counseling, he’d promised himself a moment of future happiness that would make good on it all. This has to be that moment. It’s the reality, the intensity, of the joy he feels now on the sky deck that makes him realize how insufficient joy is, at least for him. His pasta feeling doesn’t mean anything until we’ve watched him watch his kids be astounded by the Milky Way’s actual milkiness, watched him and Sandra do the “I’m king of the world!” pose. His feeling—and all feeling—takes form in dialogue with other feelings. We need contrasts to feel.

So scenes—and even sentences—should wiggle, between and among different feelings. One scene ends with a suitcase soaked with exploded Dr. Pepper. The next ends sexy. The next ends proud. This wiggling is the story thinking aloud. And when the story arrives at the dirty colander, we’ll feel the grimed-over feeling as a kind of conclusion, not a simple mood but an experience, perhaps this dad’s signal experience. He did his best, he loved as well as he could, and now…

That’s this blog’s advice: wiggle. And as your fiction wiggles, observe what else your characters feel, how they attempt to escape and reverse their feelings. Lots of times plot is nothing but a character wiggling his or her way toward the moment they can’t wiggle out of.

Instructor Mark Mayer is the author of Aerialists, which won the Michener-Copernicus Prize and is forthcoming from Bloomsbury. He's teaching our Fiction 101 class starting July 11.