From Sarah, With Joy

*Poet * Author * Wanderluster*

Monday, November 19, 2012

Describing Voices and Facial Expressions

Its really hard.

This is the part of writing that makes me jealous of actors. They say so much with just a flicker of the eyebrow, the teensiest change in inflection. When I try to do this in writing it comes across so much more clunky.

This particular aspect of description has been important to me lately, and here's why: I would so much rather show the emotion on someone's face and let that speak for itself than describe the emotion. It is so easy to dip into cliche when describing emotion. Emotion, particularly intense emotion, is one of those things that goes beyond words, and I'd rather just watch the scene and let the reader go on their own emotional journey. I loved Hemingway because that's what he did. Its also the reason half the class despised him.

So I've been trying to figure this out. Because describing voices and facial expressions can also get extremely cliche. And as I've been trying to pay attention to this in my reading, I've noticed that my facial expression approach is not a common one. Most writers do describe the emotion itself, and when its done well it is beautiful, poetic, and speaks to some universal human Truths. (Thank you F. Scott Fitzgerald)

But I like my faces. This is why I love good acting. The look on Niles' face when he tells Daphne he loves her. Meryl Streep's Julia Child blush or soft "That's all." Forrest Gumps broken face when he sees his son for the first time. Colin Firth King's Speech all the things.

How do you write that?

So I want to try an experiment. I'm going to give you a photo and a video clip. Distinctive ones, at least to me. How would you describe this face and this voice? What are your tactics?

And Go!

Sarah Allen


  1. To be honest I don't think you can ever get the kind of reaction from describing a face as you can from actually looking at one.

    What you end up with is a lot of raised eyebrows and twitching corners of mouths and whatnot.

    Far stronger to focus on what's causing the emotion and maybe drop in one or two facial actions (rather than static descriptions).

    Moody Writing

  2. I think that's where poets benefit and I lack. Poets paint with words and are able to do so more freely because their form is less constrained by a reader's need for a good story and more visual and auditory in nature. Perhaps we could learn a bit from word artists though.

  3. Oh and a PS comment. That clip is a really powerful redemption and grace story in 2.50 minutes. Wow.

  4. Definitely a challenge. It would be so handy to just plop in a photo and say, he looked like *this* dude does. :-)

  5. Great dilemma--it really CAN get cliche fast when describing facial movements. Like you said, it's better to describe the emotion itself. For the first one, I'd say: As the notes ascended, his face drew up into creases to reflect the profound beauty of the sound, to the point of an aching, almost a pain.

    And wow, I love re-watching that Lost scene; dude! he sure can ACT. The tremor in his voice, the on-verge-of-crying speaking, barely able to get the words out through his heavy anguish/emotion. Definitely a sob in his throat, an anguish you can HEAR.

  6. I will give it the five minute try.

    "You have no idea what I'm feeling," she said, braving the rifle pointed at her. This was the man who killed her leader, her teacher, her friend.

    Linus raised the rifle, stopping her mid-step. "I watched my daughter Alex die in front of me," he said.

    Iliana took a deep breath while doing her best to not say anything. Linus had nothing to lose at this point, but she still had work to do and getting killed wasn't part of the plan.

    Linus eased up on the rifle as he swallowed past the pain that closed his throat. "And it was my fault," he remembered, "I had a chance to save her." He could see that she wouldn't understand. He knew what Jacob had meant to her, to him, to everyone. But just this once, he hoped that someone would understand. "But I chose the Island over her."

    Sacrifice was well known to Iliana. Jacob had taught them how important it was.

    "All in the name of Jacob," Linus said, slowly lowering the rifle. He didn't deserve to live. All of the things he had done in the name of Jacob, the Island and even for his own power hadn't been worth the sacrifices to his soul. His eyes stung from remembering the night Alex had died as he hid, saving himself. "I sacrificed everything for him. And he didn't even care."

    "But the thing that really mattered... Was already gone."


I absolutely love hearing from you! Thank you so, so much for your thoughts and comments, they really do make my day. Consider yourself awesome. Also, I do my best to respond to every comment within 24 hours, so I invite you to come back and continue the conversation :)

To have weekly posts delivered to your inbox, just sign up here!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...