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Facial expressions

Postby berry » Wed Aug 22, 2007 9:14 am

I am having difficulty with describing facial expressions. I find that I end up repeating myself a lot. There are so many subtleties. There can be a worried frown, a concerned frown, concentrating frown. A knowing smile, a reluctant smile and so on.
So 2 questions -
Am I going to have to use simile rather than description.

Are the words that one could choose to describe such a thing so idiosyncratic that I can't get help with this?
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Postby Magus » Wed Aug 22, 2007 9:24 am

It very largely depends upon what you, as a writer, wants and what your story, at tha particular point in time, needs. So specifically how it is used, and what is used, depends so subjectively on those, that you're largely the one that needs to make the decision.

However, you could try describing their emotions more than their smile, or focus on another aspect of their face to achieve the same effect. Also, invest in some synonyms of smile, words like smirk, grin, beam, simper, as well as the numerous synonyms for laugh (chortle, chuckle, titter, cackle, snicker, snigger, etc...) that at times could replace your need for smile.

Essentially, though, you should switch them up. A movie with good special effects doesn't rely solely on CG, because people would grow accustomed to it and be able to spot its usage. Good special effects do involve CG, but also stunts/stunt-men, physical effects, explosions, etc... Use a variety of different techniques so that your audience doesn't grow too familiar with the same old sleight of had (or word, in this case). Try to keep everything as fresh as possible.
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Postby RHFay » Wed Aug 22, 2007 9:45 am

Magus wrote:However, you could try describing their emotions more than their smile, or focus on another aspect of their face to achieve the same effect. Also, invest in some synonyms of smile, words like smirk, grin, beam, simper, as well as the numerous synonyms for laugh (chortle, chuckle, titter, cackle, snicker, snigger, etc...) that at times could replace your need for smile.


I definitely agree with Magus about using synonyms to mix it up. English has a superb vocabulary. Making use of it in your writing, in an effective and meaningful way, can enrich your work.

That being said, I want to add a bit to what Magus said. There are often subtle differences between some synonyms. A wide beam is a bit different than a slight grin, for instance. Make use of the subtle differences between synonyms to get just the right effect. Word choice is often as important as other elelments in writing.

Think carefully about exactly how your character feels at the moment, then use the best term or phrase to describe the proper emotion. A nervous grin will look different, and be caused by a different emotion, than a joyous smile.

In my experience, I've found that the dictionary (a good collegiate one) and the thesaurus are vital tools for the serious writer. I typically have my dictionary and my thesaurus at my side when writing prose, as well as composing my poetry.
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Re: Facial expressions

Postby Fel_Editor » Fri Jun 25, 2010 5:54 am

It can be a POV thing too. If you write that Char X has a nervous smile on their face then that's what they have. But if you write that the looked nervous, then you are filtering the impression through the eyes of your MC. Maybe they're really nervous, maybe not. MC could be misreading the expression.

You can mix it up by using look/seem/appear angry/nervous/happy. Then you don't need to actually describe the facial expression. Let the reader imagine it.

So you have two tools:
A is B
A looks B
A good writer will juggle these to give just the right feeling. A lesser writer might just use them as synonyms.

Or get a mirror and make faces into it. It will give you ideas about how to describe the expression you wouldn't ordinarily think of.
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Re: Facial expressions

Postby Alex F » Fri Jun 25, 2010 4:31 pm

Lots of good advice here already.

However adding my own thoughts; its not always necessary to lead readers with so specific a description of how someone is looking or reacting... I am forever being told off at the writers circle I am a member of by those older and published authors for being too specific all the time when I am putting across how a character is reacting at a particular moment because it should not always be necessary to take a reader by the hand and tell them that for example during a heated argument a character is scowling heavily because this should be automatically evident as an assumption on the part of the reader who presumably knows how someone looks during an argument.

Though I agree entirely with Magus about the richness and beauty of the English language, often the simplest description in the most apt because it will not interfere with the actual point of the particular moment in your story and that is much more important than describing how a character is looking. A good writer is able to get across the emotion of the moment in the dialogue, (if its a dialogue moment of course) and so often a simple 'he said,' will sufice to clarify who is speaking at that particular moment.

Also, it depends on whether there is a particular reason that the reader should need to be told that a character pulls a specific expression... is it relevant to the moment that you should signpost to your audience that a character pulls a specific face.

Eg, a character is trying a new kind of food for the first time in a restaurant and another character; a nervous chef hanging around in the background is trying to see whether the person likes the dish. In this case a good description of a facial expression would be marvelous given its relevance to the moment because it adds real credence to the moment and creates real tension because the potential relation between the two characters could be influenced so strongly in that moment by a negative or a positive reaction.

Of course, that is a very specific and obvious example and though I love the English language and adore employing it to good effect there are times when it is better to stick to the minimum and let the plot do the talking rather than the description. I'm not saying for a moment don't use varied descriptions for facial expressions, I'm just pointing out that sometimes its worth asking yourself 'do I need to be use one to advance the story.' :)
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