Monday, February 20, 2012

Wide eyes and pursed lips

I want to talk for a moment about facial expressions. I've been noticing them quite often in the manuscripts I've been editing (including my own). I've also been hacking away at them with my red pen as if they were zombies and this were the apocalypse.

We writers are obsessed with facial movements. You can tell, because we include so many in our manuscripts. Our characters smile and frown in a variety of ways, from small quirks of a frown to wide, brilliant smiles that stretch the lips. Characters lift their eyebrows... in surprise, in question, or in amusement. Oh, they also waggle them. Eyes widen and blink, or narrow or roll. Lips twist and purse. Mouths snap shut or drop open.

And I haven't even gotten to the head-movements, like shaking or nodding or tilting. In my own writing, I'm fond of having my characters tilt their heads, so much so that they probably require a chiropractor by this point.

In many cases, if a reader didn't know better, they'd think that the most important facet of fiction is what a pair of eyes are doing at any given moment. Gazes sweep and penetrate. Sometimes, glances are meaningful or full of weight. At other times, stares can burn through a character like the Death Star through an entire planet. And you think Alderaan had it bad... woe to a character when the heroine's eyes are boring through him with fiery anger!

Now, description in writing is a good and wonderful thing. So is the ever-expounded upon concept of showing. So, it stands to reason that we need to describe the reactions of our characters. But there's such a thing as overkill. Facial movements are probably one of the most overused and cliched method of providing beats in a scene.

Facial expressions can be very useful and important--we see that in real life when we talk to other people. However when they're overused in fiction, the one moment when it's important that the reader see the tiny frown of the heroine, they're not going to notice in the sea of other facial ticks. It's just another frown. Just another glance.

We also have a strong compulsion to describe the facial expressions of point of view characters. One small problem with that--the point-of-view character can't see her face. And while we can be cognizant of our own facial expressions--we're often not.

When I'm furious, I'm not actually aware of anything my face is doing. I feel like I want to throw something. I'm aware that I can't seem to breathe well and that there's an odd ringing in my ears. I see that my hands are shaking. But do I notice that I'm frowning? No. Heck, I have no idea what my face looks like. Neither, for the most part, should a POV character.

So save those facial expressions for moments when there's an important reason for the POV character to be aware that they're smiling or frowning. If you've conveyed that the POV character is happy through narrative and dialogue, the reader's going to paint a smile on his face. Readers are clever like that. And it's what makes books different from movies--we can suggest how the stage looks with hints and bits of description. The reader fills in the blank bits when we give them enough to build with. The facial expressions of characters are no different.

And honestly, if you need a beat of some kind, there's a million other things a character can do besides smile or glance.


Catherine Stine said...

I agree. I always tell my writing students that around 75 percent of communication is non-verbal, so they can't just leave their characters with dialog. They need to describe their expressions, voice tone, mannerisms-the whole experience. Nice post!

Donnell said...

Ann, excellent, I'm in draft mode of my WIP, and after I finish, I'm sure I will hire a surgeon to perform a facial-eye-gaze-lip-mouth-dectomy. Glad you're bringing this up.

Question: are you finding that authors' work is sounding a lot alike? And if so, what are your thoughts?

Mary Marvella said...

Interesting. I love "She felt her face break into a smile." Uh, she smiled. No she can't see it, but I know if I smile.

I know if I frown, but I NEVER feel my brow furrow in thought. I might frown so hard my forehead aches .

Jerrie Alexander said...

As I read this post, my teeth clenched, the nerve in my jaw pulsed, and my gaze narrowed! OMG! We do us use the same wide eyes and pursed lips too often.

I'm in editing mode today, and as soon as my quirked eyebrow returns to normal, I'm adding expressions to the list!

Great post.

Donnell said...

Mary, I agree with you. But we're discouraged from using "felt". I say break the mold and once in a ahile use felt

Oh my gosh, Jerrie, for a minute there I thought you'd had a botox injection...This was a great reminder to watch our tags and not let our characters become talking heads.

Larissa Reinhart Hoffman said...

Great post. I am guilty of doing this too much in my ms's, too. Not only do they gaze around too much, they clench fists, and toss up chins. They laugh a lot. Cross their arms. Shrug their shoulders.

Deep sigh from me.

Action scenes tend to kill a lot of these facial expressions. No one has time to frown or smile when they're physically active.

K.L. Townsend said...

Great timing. I'm editing a novella right now and targeting my facial expressions. I think many of us can tell when it's necessary and when it's a crutch or a beat. Editing is the best way to deleting those that need to go :)

Alexa said...

Great advice!

Leslie Ann aka LA said...

Great post. I'm writing a tense scene right now and yup, I've got those eyes and brows moving.

Sigh, another thing to add to the list when I'm editing.

It's also interesting that in my screenwriting, I can't use this much, the actor does what he/she needs to do to convey the emotion. "looked with fear" type of thing is about as deep as it gets.

~LA of the scribes

Sherry Isaac said...

Ha! Love the laser-eyes. Just introduced second cat to our home this month, and have seen that look! Great site, I shall return, but in the meantime...

Two-word series:

Facial expressions.

Body Language.

Fresh writing.

Margie Lawson.


Suz said...

Well-spotted and well-stated. My characters do a great deal of gazing, mostly into each other's eyes :)

Caryn Caldwell said...

Love this! Sometimes it seems like people are going so out of their way to have creative facial expressions, too, that it just gets awkward and hard to picture. You know, because just saying someone smiled is boring. It has to be three paragraphs describing it instead...

Donnell said...

Caryn, totally agree with your comment about body language being three sentences when one would do. I judged a contest last year where there was so much body movement, the plot got buried.

Body movement is a tool. I don't pick up a book to go to watch characters ballet. I pick up a book to read an intriguing story.

I am reading a book by Robert Peck Newton. His book Secrets of Successful Fiction is a fun, easy to understand secrets to building a book. Only they're not secrets. They common sense. Good day, everyone.