It was written all over her face! !
Whenever we speak to people, the first thing we notice is their face. It is a focal point. Homing in, we connect with a person’s gaze, noticing how their eyes widen, squint, focus inward or dart. We observe their mouth, noting lip presses, teeth flashes, frowns, smiles and pursed lips. Eyebrow lifts, the forehead crinkling and relaxing…each facial micro movement is a message, a clue to what the person is thinking and feeling. When writing it is important so that we pay attention to facial cues whilst describing character emotion right? Wrong actually, well the opposite really. While the face might offer hundreds of micro expressions in real life, to translate these split-second gestures into a strong emotional description is hard.
Don’t get me wrong…the face is important! The facial description is always the first thing the reader uses to build a connection with a new character. A man’s steely grey eyes, his angular face, and strong jutting jaw..his furrowed brow…these details help readers form an image. But while facial description paints a physical picture, it doesn’t necessarily convey an emotional one. Instead, more descriptive ‘weight’ needs to be given to what the character’s body is doing.
NLP is the study of body language or neuro linguistic programming . The body can provide thousands of possible movements, gestures and actions that will show readers what the character is feeling. All readers are body language experts. Ninety-three percent of communication is nonverbal, so we are constantly being fed messages through body movement. What we sense as we interact with others dictates how we feel about ourselves, and how we behave towards another person. When reading we naturally apply this skill to recognize body language on the page. If as a writer you can make the reader relate to a gesture or movement it is almost as uf theu are eliciting and experiencing the same emotion. This ‘shared experience’ is what powers up that empathy link between the reader and the character. Add this to emotion-rich dialogue, and, if the POV allows, snippets of the character’s thoughts and internal sensations (visceral reactions), and we can covey powerful emotions.
Why can’t the reader do the same thing for micro expressions? We interpret facial and body language is visually, and so readers will not see emotion being expressed first-hand. Instead, they rely on their own imagination to work in tandem with the writers vivid descriptions. Micro facial shifts happen quickly, and often several at the same time.Trying to break down these movements and describe them accurately can create a mechanical feel and slow the pace. Larger more recognizable expressions work well as emotional cues (frowning, smiling, etc.), but have a tendency to be overused. Due to this, describing the character’s facial expression to show how they are feeling is something that should be done in moderation.
When you need to show character’s emotion, think beyond the face. Look at the body and delve into your past, remembering when you experienced the same emotion. What did your body do? How did it express itself? What did you feel inside– light headiness making you reach out for stability, anger so strong words stick in your throat as you clench your fists? Body heaving as panic grips you? Recreate the emotional moment and allow your senses to take over. Then, write it down. People watching is a hobby of mine and now I’m writing I can pass this off as Observing people. Doing this is a great way to build up a ‘store’ of body language to draw upon. The more work we put into crafting fresh body cues, the deeper the connection we forge with readers. We want the reader to be immersed into the scene and really feel that emotion.
Your turn! Let me know what body cues we can put into our writing and feel free to comment with examples that work for you.
Neil Sehmbhy is an author from the Midlands. An avid lover of cheese toasties and all things fantasy, if he could ride a dragon to work, he would. Author of the now completed book 1 of the Corporation trilogy, Jinx and Sunder series. Follow him on twitter @neilsehmbhy