Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Face is the Window to the Soul

This is kind of a more specific follow up to the post I wrote about writers and creepers several months ago. It’s a very simple writing tip: watch people’s faces.

The key is being observant, noticing the little things and then knowing how to describe them later to bring a mental picture to the minds of the readers. See what people do when they’re happy, when they’re about to cry, when they’re lying (make a truce/treaty in a strategy board game if you want to see this one), when they’re about to fall asleep in the middle of a sentence, when they’re so mad they’re about to punch you in the face (okay, it would be better if they’re mad at someone else and about to punch him in the face).

What do they look like? How would you describe their facial expression, or the way their eyes look? How do you, as an outside observer, know instinctively what emotions they’re feeling? Is their voice affected too?

Then write those things.

I realized that I need to start doing a better job with this, because I realized that all of my characters have basically the same portfolio of facial expression and body language. I think a lot of writers tend to fall into a rut like this.

For example, many of my characters raise their eyebrows, smirk, blink (when they’re surprised or trying to process something), bite their lips when nervous, frown, grin, laugh, sigh, groan, narrow their eyes, and, for some reason, turn/whirl around (whatever is dangerous or surprising is always behind them, I guess).

All of these are what I’d call stage direction actions, because if you were writing a script, you’d probably need to include them so the actors and director would know how you intended a certain line to be delivered. (Sarcastic? Mournful? Joking?) These are the “bigger” actions, the ones that often make a difference in the plot or pacing of a scene.

I don’t know if I’ve ever had someone wink or suck in their cheeks or stare into space or scratch their nose or a thousand other things that people do all the time, because I don’t notice those things. Maybe the people I’m around most don’t do them. Or maybe I’m just lazy and have gotten used to describing only my usual list of stage direction actions.

Little things are often undervalued. You might not miss them if they’re gone, but they add depth to characters, help with showing instead of telling, and make a subtle difference in the tone of your story.

And, hey, if you think people would be offended if you study their various tics and quirks, I volunteer myself as a case study. Apparently I have a wide variety of interesting facial expressions. The downside to this is that some of them may defy narrative description.

But maybe some of you will take that as a challenge. Go ahead, give it a try. I dare you (she wrote with a smug smile, as she leaned toward the keyboard, challenging an invisible audience).

1 comment:

  1. Quoth Linus van Pelt from the Peanuts comics, "I love mankind. It's PEOPLE I can't stand!"