by Peggy Bechko
As writers we think about many things, many aspects of the tales we’re telling, many details.
But, do we think about the face? It’s the first thing we notice when we meet someone, or catch someone’s eye across a crowded room. It’s what we focus on when we have an exchange of words. Whether acutely aware or not, we note smiles, eyebrow quirks, white or not-so-white teeth, frowns, lips compresses or purses, forehead crinkles and smile lines.
So what about our writing? Well, plainly when tackling a script we toss in a few simple directives or notes about what a character is feeling and doing and it’s up to the actor/actress to take it from there. We can try to be clear, but it’s still up to the actors. Hope you get someone really good to play a pivotal part. Sometimes something so subtle and simple as eye-widening will add a whole dimension to a character. You, as the writer have little control over how the actor/actress chooses to interpret what you’ve written. What sort of expressions are chosen to depict what was written on the script page.
Novel writers have another problem. Why doesn’t a writer focus in on the face when writing an engrossing novel when it’s what people zero in on in everyday life?
Easy. While someone’s face offers a continuing kaleidoscope of emotions and micro expressions they all happen in a split second. Often times one after the other. As writers all we would be doing is describing the next wink, crinkle or smile.
On balance, the face is still important to the novel writer. Plainly when a new character enters there are usually expressions described or eye color mentioned or shape of the face or how the eyes twinkle mentioned. All of that creates a picture in your readers’ minds.
You’ll notice though that these are physical things being described, not emotional ones. Emotion must be conveyed by writers through body movement and dialog. The movement of the body, what’s going on there, is key to demonstrating to the readers what the character is feeling.
Think about it. We all read body movement and facial expressions every day when we interact with others. What is telegraphed to us by them influences us in how we feel and how we respond. This being the case when the writer lays description of body language onto the page the reader becomes more empathetic toward the characters. Toss in dialog that conveys what the character is feeling along with the added advantage the novel writer has of getting inside a character’s head and the writer creates a very engaging, emotional moment on the page.
Why does all this work? Hey, you already know the answer if you pause to think. The reader, guided by the writer, isn’t focusing on the rapidly shifting facial shifts, which is largely a visual task, but rather on body motion and internal feelings which trips the imagination of the reader so they create their own movie in their heads and are right there watching the characters interact. So while noting a smile or other ‘large’ movement of the face works well in addition to the body language mentioned above, beware, they’re frequently used to the point of (in the reader’s eye) disgust. Be sparing. Less is more as I’ve frequently been told.
So what to do? How to handle this as a writer? Ponder body movements coupled with emotion like fear or joy, or stress. What do they look like? What have you looked like when experiencing those emotions?
Take a field trip. Observe other people in public.
That couple over there is having a fight. Oh! What are they doing? Waving their arms? Frowning? Standing stiffly? Leaning toward each other – away? Pointing a finger? Add to any of that a few inward thoughts about what they feel such as holding back tears, choked up throat, a rising heat within, and you, as writer, can create very powerful scenes.
Okay, writers, shift mental gears and express those emotions. Let’s get the whole body into it.