This is the last in this little series and, in some ways, is probably the hardest to work with. We’ve already looked at describing faces, but here are some things to think about to take your descriptions to the next level.
First, let’s think about expressions. Facial expressions can be written about in general terms using words like grimace, frown, smile, grin, but when we use these words we’re not really showing the emotion. Some of the time you can use these types of words and they work well, but there are times when we need to take this to a higher plane.
So let’s look at a few common ones, how we can take description to the next level and these tips will help you with other expressions.
Frown: What happens to the forehead when someone frowns? Does it crinkle? What happens to the eyebrows and the skin between them? What happens to the eyes? What happens to the mouth?
So instead of writing ‘he/she frowned’ consider ‘his/her forehead furrowed and the eyebrows hooded over eyes that blazed with consternation. His/her lips tightened, turning down at the ends’. Looking at it as a reader, what sounds more interesting?
Smile: What happens to the eyes? What happens to the mouth? Is any other part of the face affected?
So instead of writing ‘he/she smiled’ consider ‘his/her eyes sparkled, crinkling around the edges, mouth upturned revealing dimples in the cheeks’
Puzzled: Again, think about the different parts of the face. What happens to them when someone looks puzzled?
So instead of writing ‘puzzled’ consider ‘his/her eyes rolled upwards as if seeking answers from above and his/her teeth clasped around their bottom lip’
If you have trouble picturing what happens to different elements of the face during a particular expression, try this: stand in front of a mirror and think about something that will make your face contort into the expression. Now look at your face one part at a time. Start at the top and work your way down, noting down how each feature behaves. As with my previous posts on Describing People, type the information into a spreadsheet or other file for future reference.
If you want to use words to convey emotion (as in frown, smile etc) here’s a link to Daily Writing Tips for a list of 100 facial expressions and what they depict. http://www.dailywritingtips.com/100-words-for-facial-expressions/
Although some people might argue gestures and mannerisms are the same thing, I beg to differ. To me, gestures are the way people use their bodies to emphasise what they are saying. Mannerisms are things they tend to do unconsciously and can often give away their true feelings. This is why I have split them into two sections.
Let’s move on to gestures. If you can get in the habit of watching people when they are talking, you can pick up a vast array of gestures to add to your ever-growing list. Here are one or four examples:
Shrugging the shoulders – this is a classic one, but can work very well. People do this, often without realising they are.
Gesticulating with hands – lots of people use their hands when they talk as a way to emphasise what they are saying. Just imagine a fisherman talking about something they caught and using their hands to show/exaggerate how big it was (or the one that got away, lol). Another time people use their hands a lot is when they are excited.
People cup their chin in one or both hands for a variety of reasons. They might be pensive, fed up, sad or even daydreaming, so this gesture can be used in a variety of settings.
Rubbing the back of the neck – people don’t only do this to ease aches and pains, they sometimes do it when they’re stressed, worried or if something frightening or awesome makes the fine hairs on the neck stand up.
Mannerisms are things we all do unconsciously. Sometimes they are things we’ve seen our parents do when we were children and mimicked them, sometimes they are movements we’ve developed on our own. I know I’ve ‘inherited’ a mannerism of my dad’s, but it was only fairly recently I realised it was something I did too; it’s a certain way I place fingers on my face when I’m concentrating or reading.
Some people rub their nose or pull on their ear lobe when they tell lies. They don’t realise they do it and that it gives them away.
Some people rub their thumb against their first two fingers on the same hand. Perhaps they do this when they are anxious or upset.
I know someone whose tongue peeps between their lips when they concentrate. Some people drum their fingers when impatient and some people chew on their pens when they are thinking.
A final thought for you to consider: Body language is used to good effect every single day of our lives, whether we realise it or not – like tilting your head to the side when listening to someone speak, for example. All these descriptions and more can be added to our writing to give our characters more depth, more believable, more real. Never forget, you need your readers to connect with your characters and they can’t if you don’t give them something tangible they can relate to!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this series and found it useful. If nothing else, if it’s provoked a few neurons to fly around and fire a synapsis or two in the brain then this has achieved what I set out to do.
As always, I’d love to know your thoughts on this and the rest of the series!