All About That Face: Using Facial Expressions in Writing

If you’re still groaning over the title of this post, I completely understand. I just couldn’t resist. You know that, right?

Last week, I wrote about the ways physicality of your characters can help you as a writer, and today, I want to get a bit more specific and talk about how facial expressions — even subtle ones — can do a lot of work for you.

When I think of facial expressions, my mother-in-law ML comes to mind. The woman has never tried to have a “poker face,” and I love her for that. Take, for example, when she tastes a wine she doesn’t like: her brows pull together, and the corners of her mouth pull back. Her tongue peeks between her lips, and she squints. Or when she sees holiday lights, her eyes go wide, and her mouth opens just slightly while her brows lift. Her face is a gift that goes right to her immediate emotions, and it’s beautiful.

Subtle Changes Mean Big Things

We’ve all read works where people glare a lot or where their faces look sour, and while those descriptions are better than none, there’s a great deal more power in describing what actually happens in someone’s face rather than our interpretation of what happens — glare and sour are both interpretations, one step removed from what actually happens on a person’s face.

A more immediate and strong way of describing a glare would be to say something like, “Her lightless eyes fixed on his back for the entire time it took him to walk away.” Or if his face is sour, you might write, “His eyes became tiny slits, and it looked like he might suck the skin off his lips if he pursed them any tighter.” See how those are descriptive of what is happening on that person’s face instead of the meaning of that expression?

3 Ways to Use Facial Expressions Effectively

  1. Focus on the eyes. That window-to-the-soul expressions exists for good reason. The eyes are often the one part of our anatomy that can give us away more quickly. So think about whether your character’s eyes flash wide for a second. Does the light fade from them in hard moments? Or do they sparkle a bit like Santa’s? These aren’t literal things, always, but the idea of light, or lack thereof, in eyes is powerful. You can also think about how eyebrows move, how the wrinkles in the corners deepen or tighten, and how people move their eyes — a bit of side eye, a good eyeroll, perhaps.
  2. Jut that jaw. Clenched teeth. Agape mouth. Underbite of anger. (I made that one up, but I like it.) Those are all ways to express various emotions. Think about how someone’s mouth moves when they wail in grief — the up and down as they gasp for breath, the oval shape to their lips as they sob, the wide-open sorrow of it. Or ponder how your teeth move against one another when stress reaches it’s pinnacle. Do you feel the muscles moving against the skin of your cheek? Or have you seen someone have to hold back their words so hard that their teeth bang together? Use that stuff.
  3. Bring on the combo. One of the most powerful ways to convey a complex emotion is by using a couple of facial ticks to show them. Maybe that parent’s mouth opens in what is supposed to be wonder when he sees his child putting “snow” all over the Christmas tree with the flour bag, but if you look at his eyes, you see a slight squint that indicates displeasure. Or maybe she says, “I’m just really sad,” but a tight jawline and a flare to her nostrils show anger more than sadness. You can reveal underlying emotion and create nuance, deception, and intrigue with just a couple of misaligned facial expressions. And of course, a sincere expression will align in all ways and can be a quick way for you to build credibility and honesty in a character.

The face is limitless in it’s ability to reveal emotion. From forehead to chin, ear to ear, you have a rich set of options for deepening your work.

What facial movements or aspects reveal sadness to you? Fear? Hope? Reluctant happiness? Share a few of your favorites in the comments if you’d like.


Originally published at andilit.com on December 7, 2016.

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