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Thread: Describing facial expressions

  1. #1
    Altogether Ookie MarkN's Avatar
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    Describing facial expressions

    Here's something that's been bothering me for a while in trying to get my novel finished. I'm writing along, doing a scene where two or more characters are in dialogue, and in my mind, I "see" much of their attitude and expression in terms of their facial expressions.

    I'm having a hard time getting that down on paper. "He frowned. He grimaced. He smirked. He smiled. He grinned..." After a while, I run out of "facial expression" words, and none of them have quite captured the particular nuance I'm after. Frustrating.

    What does everyone else do? Not lean so heavily on descriptions of facial expressions? Expand their vocabulary? Use other forms of body language to convey the same idea?
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  2. #2
    Hero, villain, angel, demon AW Moderator Sage's Avatar
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    I feel your pain. One of my characters rarely speaks, & I get tired of referring to his facial expressions or actions to demonstrate what he's thinking. Then to add everyone else's actions, I feel some get way overused. (He's always smiling, blushing, & nodding.)
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  3. #3
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    Here's an exercise for you: instead of simply writing the verb, describe the action taken (show versus tell).

    He grinned = The corners of his mouth quirked upward.
    He grimaced = His eyebrows furrowed, and his lips pressed together.

    You don't want to go overboard with it. Sometimes simply saying "He smiled" is appropriate. But it's one way to mix things up a little.
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  4. #4
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    I, personally, wouldn't lean to heavily on facial expressions. Body language can be more important. Often times people are good enough to hide their emotions facially but give off other, subtle cues in body language. There being only so many ways to describe a facial expression in words (without quickly sounding tired or over-wrought) you can use basic body language as another means to describe a character's thoughts based on their physical action. There are other ways to describe a smile or a grimance that can work, but often times if used too much they can begin to sound silly when what you're really trying to say is "he smiled", or "he grimaced" etc.

  5. #5
    practical experience, FTW IrishScribbler's Avatar
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    I agree with BuffStuff about the body language, and also with those that have said to describe the facial expression rather than tell it. "He blushed" is fine, but it paints a much more vivid picture to say:

    "He looked down at his hands, which he clenched and unclenched nervously, his face deepening to the red of a college girl just back from Cancun. After a moment, he looked up at her again, still unsure what to say."
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  6. #6
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    Quote Originally Posted by IrishScribbler
    "He looked down at his hands, which he clenched and unclenched nervously, his face deepening to the red of a college girl just back from Cancun. After a moment, he looked up at her again, still unsure what to say."
    The bit that always gets me is POV. In the above example, we're in this bloke's POV, so unless he's looking in a mirror, he shouldn't know exactly how red his face gets.

    "He looked down at his hands, which he clenched and unclenched nervously. Surely his face was as red as that of a college girl just back from Keith Richard's hotel room. After a moment, he looked up at her again, still unsure of what to say, but slightly amused by his own ponderings."

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    Around and About SuperModerator Birol's Avatar
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    Ah, but when you're skin is turning that red, you feel it. It starts to warm up, to flush, from the inside. It starts in one place -- your cheeks, your forehead, your ears -- and it creeps outward until you know, just know, that any low flying aircraft in the vicinity will mistake you for a warning beacon.

  8. #8
    Soldier, Storyteller Linda Adams's Avatar
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    You can also try other things that are completely different than racial language to convey the same emotion--particularly if it's the POV character. For example:

    Instead of: He grimaced.

    Try: Great, just great. This was never going to work.

    Or use the setting itself to convey what the character is feeling. An empty street looks very different to a frightened person than someone who doesn't care.
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  9. #9
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    POV

    Quote Originally Posted by Birol
    Ah, but when you're skin is turning that red, you feel it. It starts to warm up, to flush, from the inside. It starts in one place -- your cheeks, your forehead, your ears -- and it creeps outward until you know, just know, that any low flying aircraft in the vicinity will mistake you for a warning beacon.


    I still don't think it works unless you get in a "felt," or a "thought," or a "was sure" at the very least. POV is tricky, and if it reads like the POV is wrong, then it's wrong.

  10. #10
    Fear the Death Ray maestrowork's Avatar
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    I don't really write a lot of facial expressions. They always seem so trite to me. I'd just keep them to the minimum. If necessary, I'd describe them as something like "she scrunched her nose" or "he bit his lower lip" or "his lips curled into an easy smile," used sparingly. I'd rather let the dialogue and body language ("he shifted his body in the chair") do the work. One of my editors said too many "he smiled" or "she grinned" or "he nodded" are tiresome and trite. And I agreed.

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  11. #11
    Fear the Death Ray maestrowork's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by LisaHy
    The bit that always gets me is POV. In the above example, we're in this bloke's POV, so unless he's looking in a mirror, he shouldn't know exactly how red his face gets.
    POV is tricky and a lot of writers miss that kind of POV violation because it's not apparent.

    I'd just say: "I felt my face warming" or "I felt my face turning red." I can't see it, but from experience, when I feel my face warming, I know it's probably turning red. The nice thing about this is that your readers can identify with it -- everyone has felt that way -- and that help your readers experience the scene. It's show (as opposed to tell -- "I was embarrassed").

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  12. #12
    Altogether Ookie MarkN's Avatar
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    POV is not a problem, because I usually run into this when trying to describe how the other characters react to what the main character is saying. These are mostly kids talking to each other, so they're not being subtle about hiding their feelings, in most cases.

    When it's the main character, I can use the "interior monologue" (as Austin Powers says ) but capturing the body language of the other characters is hard work sometimes. Not that I'm afraid of hard work, but I'm certainly open to suggestions as to how to augment my repertoire.

    I do appreciate the above discussion, btw--very helpful, thanks!
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  13. #13
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    For fun, I just checked my newly finished 85k first draft - and found 49 smiles and 94 nods.

  14. #14
    practical experience, FTW janetbellinger's Avatar
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    I've decided to let the reader also "see" the facial expressions and body language. I know that when I am reading a novel, I like to be able to put my own particular take on it, so I like to extend that courtesy to my potential readers as well.
    Last edited by janetbellinger; 04-24-2006 at 04:04 PM.
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  15. #15
    Altogether Ookie MarkN's Avatar
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    And while we're on the subject (or at least near it), I'm also obsessing over those little, nonverbal noises we make. "She sighed." "He grunted." "She snorted." "He sniffed." Other than the variations on "they laughed," that's pretty much all we've got for nonverbal noises that still convey feelings, or at least those are all that come to mind immediately.

    Oh well, I guess that's just what comes from my lack of practice in the craft.
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  16. #16
    practical experience, FTW janetbellinger's Avatar
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    I make little use of those, too, unless somebody's grunting beacause he's having a B.M., or something. Seriously though, if a person is speaking, her words should show what she is feeling. Unless you can come up with a new bodily expression, the ones in current use have pretty much already been done.
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  17. #17
    Fear the Death Ray maestrowork's Avatar
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    The exception is when the body language/facial expression betrays what's being said:

    She rolled her eyes. "Yeah, just lovely."

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  18. #18
    Dorothy A. Winsor dawinsor's Avatar
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    You might try checking the bookstore for books on body language. I find them helpful.

  19. #19
    No Time For Chitchat, Kemosabe. badducky's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by maestrowork
    I don't really write a lot of facial expressions. They always seem so trite to me. I'd just keep them to the minimum. If necessary, I'd describe them as something like "she scrunched her nose" or "he bit his lower lip" or "his lips curled into an easy smile," used sparingly. I'd rather let the dialogue and body language ("he shifted his body in the chair") do the work. One of my editors said too many "he smiled" or "she grinned" or "he nodded" are tiresome and trite. And I agreed.
    I figure the dialogue should be so well-written that facial expressions are obvious considering the words used. Unless, of course, the words and facial expressions don't line up.

    i.e. "Gosh, I'm so sorry to hear your basement flooded," said my neighbor. He had a big, friendly smile on his face. I wanted to punch him.
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  20. #20
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    I don't write that way. I always rely heavily on the imagination of the reader. It works for me.

  21. #21
    Hero, villain, angel, demon AW Moderator Sage's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by janetbellinger
    I make little use of those, too, unless somebody's grunting beacause he's having a B.M., or something. Seriously though, if a person is speaking, her words should show what she is feeling. Unless you can come up with a new bodily expression, the ones in current use have pretty much already been done.
    What abou when a person isn't speaking, though?
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    practical experience, FTW janetbellinger's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by maestrowork
    The exception is when the body language/facial expression betrays what's being said:

    She rolled her eyes. "Yeah, just lovely."
    I would still leave out the eye rolling. You can hear the sarcasm in her voice which does the job nicely. I once read that you shouldn't write something that's been said before. Eye rolling has been done to death.
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  23. #23
    Hero, villain, angel, demon AW Moderator Sage's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by janetbellinger
    I would still leave out the eye rolling. You can hear the sarcasm in her voice which does the job nicely. I once read that you shouldn't write something that's been said before. Eye rolling has been done to death.
    Yes, in real life. Which is why a character might do it too....
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  24. #24
    practical experience, FTW janetbellinger's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Sage
    What abou when a person isn't speaking, though?
    If a person is moved to roll her eyes, I would have them speak instead of rolling her eyes. Yes people do roll their eyes in real life, but we want to discover new territory when we're writing, and eye rolling isn't one of them. If you want to use body language or facial expression use it for a new situation using an expression that requires us to think: Oh yes, that person must be feeling secret pain or pleasure or is suppressing pride or anger or whatever but make it something new. I certainly don't know it all, either. I am just learning. In my PA novel, I had characters rolling their eyes and I made up really awkward metaphors for hearts skipping a beat. I wouldn't do that now, because everybody already knows your heart skips a beat when you see the person you love. I want to stretch myself and write about something less common.
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  25. #25
    Hero, villain, angel, demon AW Moderator Sage's Avatar
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    I have a character who (almost) never speaks. He will never opt to say something when he can express himself some other way. He's not much for the eye-rolling (his sister is, though), but except for two people who can read his mind, he uses his expressions & body movements to express himself. He is horrible at hiding his feelings, and has no reason to bother when the person he hangs out with the most KNOWS his emotions & thoughts.

    Characters' body movements/facial expressions are just another way to demonstrate to the audience what they are feeling or thinking. There are many reasons to use them rather than dialogue (For example, are the characters in a situation where they need to be quiet? Is a non-POV character saying one thing, but thinking another? Is the character the type of person who would shrug instead of saying, "I don't know," or roll their eyes instead of saying something sarcastic?). I am usually impressed when I notice that an author has demonstrated a character's feelings by their movements, rather than their dialogue. Not everyone speaks everything on their mind.
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