Showing Emotion: Moving Beyond The Face

The face is the first thing we notice in real life, and the focal point during any conversation. We connect to a person’s gaze, paying attention to how their eyes widen, squint, focus inward or dart. We also watch 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.

So if we focus on face-reading in real life, should we then center description on it when trying to convey our character’s emotion?

emotionActually, it’s more the opposite. While the face might offer hundreds of micro expressions in real life, these split-second gestures do not always translate into strong emotional description.

Don’t get me wrong…the face is important! When a new character enters the scene, facial description is often the first beat of connection a reader has with them. A woman’s soft grey eyes, her rounded face, how sunlight glints through her curly auburn hair as she moves…these details help readers form an image.

But while facial-centered description helps paint a physical picture, it should not be relied on to also provide an emotional one. Instead, more descriptive ‘weight’ needs to be given to what the character’s body is doing.

By sheer mass, the body can provide thousands of possible movements, gestures and actions that will show readers what the character is feeling. Why? Because all readers (all people!) 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 will dictate how we feel ourselves, and our behavior toward the other person.

Readers naturally apply this skill to what they read, and recognize body language on the page. Often the way a gesture or movement is described reminds them of how they used a similar one themselves when experiencing an 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 convey a powerful emotional moment!

Why doesn’t this body language skill apply to reading micro expressions?

Interpreting facial and body language is largely visual, and our readers are not seeing emotion being expressed first-hand. Instead, they are relying on their own imagination to work in tandem with the writer’s ability to create vivid description. 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. There are larger, more recognizable facial expressions that work well as emotional cues (frowning, smiling, etc.), but they are often overused. Because of this, describing the character’s expression to show how they are feeling is something that should be done in moderation.

The next time you want to show your character’s emotion, think beyond the face.

Instead, look at what the body might be doing. If you need ideas, delve into your past to a time where you experienced the same emotion. What did your body do? How did it express itself? What did you feel inside–a heaviness in the chest, pain twisting your throat? Lightheadedness from a surge of adrenaline? Skin sensitivity? Recreate the emotional moment and allow your senses to take over. Then, write it down.

Observing people in real life and in movies is another great way to build up a ‘store’ of body language to draw upon. There are examples all around us of unique ways to express emotion, and all we have to do is look. And of course, if you need to, The Emotion Thesaurus is always there to help supply ideas.

When you think about what body language movements to show, dig deep. The more work we put into crafting fresh body cues, the deeper the connection we forge with readers. Above all, our audience reads for the experience, so make sure to give it to them!

Your turn: do you find yourself overusing facial cues to describe how your character feels? What area of the face do you get caught up in? Let me know in the comments!


Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Characters, Description, Emotion, Emotion Thesaurus Guide, Empathy, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Showing Emotion: Moving Beyond The Face

  1. Pingback: More Than A Pretty Face #AngelaAckerman #characteremotion | Wicked Dragon Writer Solutions

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  4. Janet Smart says:

    I always have to go back through my manuscripts and take out some of the many smiles my characters seem to have.

  5. :Donna Marie says:

    This is something I’ve noticed in the books I enjoy the most—the picking of the right expression, movement, behavior. It’s such a gift! Thanks for the tips 🙂

  6. What a helpful post! I needed this today, as my characters have emoted through their eyes the past few chapters. Ugh! I need to shake them up! Stiffen a shoulder or something!

    Thank you!

  7. Mark Walker says:

    I am smitten by smiles. I use glares, even the “jaundiced eyes.” I write of laughter, and of course, the maniacal laughter of villains. Using body movements is new to me.

  8. Tara Ashlyn says:

    Smiles, blushing cheeks, staring, downward cast eyes, tears, jaw clenching or bowed out. These give me the most trouble. I look forward to digging in on my current project and challenging myself to find another way. Your book will come most handy for fine tuning everything!

  9. Such a great reminder, Angela!!

  10. Eyes. They’re mirrors of the soul, after all. Lips, too. But I’m happy to have found alternatives in your wonderful thesaurus!

  11. Celia Lewis says:

    Oh but I do love twitching eyebrows and dimples. A flash of a dimple melts me.

    Fingers – twisting a button on a cardigan or fiddling with a zipper on a sweater/jacket. Fists in pockets, or hidden behind the back. Hand to throat. Tapping toes. At various times in my drafts, they’re all over-used! Much editing needed.

    Sigh. Back to body language. Great reminders here. Thanks so much.

    • Glad this is helpful. We all have these overused bits in our books, trust me. I find it helpful to make a note of my worst offenders, then in a later draft, I use Word to highlight them all. Then I challenge myself to change at least half, if not more. My writing is always better for doing this, especially when it comes to these facial cues!

  12. Tonja Drecker says:

    In my last MS, I was hung up on eyebrows and lips. A reader later pointed out the hilarious twitching frenzy 🙂

  13. I love your books and use them all the time when I’m writing. Using the body language ques really does help. I use the face-smiles and eyebrows seem to be where I end up the most. That and staring. Trying to learn new ways of expression for those two areas. 🙂

    • So glad you are getting good use from our books, Erzabet! The whole facial cue description thing is one we all struggle with. The good news is, the more we get into the habit of tightening this type of description, the more we will naturally start writing more about the body and less about the face. 🙂

  14. Cindy Huff says:

    The eyes. It’s easy to rely on emotions reflected in the eyes. I tend to have guys rake their fingers through their hair too. Smiles, lips in a line are easily overused. I love dimples that appear when joy is present. As you explain the rest of the body responds to emotions. Choosing the ones fitting your character takes thought.

    • It really does take some thought. This is why we created all the emotion lists, to sort of help that part of the process so that the ideas help the writer’s own imagination trigger a bit quicker. But the result of a deeper more meaningful display of emotion rather than an overused cue really is worth it!

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