Sometimes I find it hard to describe the emotions, facial expressions and/or movements of the characters, Can I Please have some tips on that?
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First off, I apologize if I don’t hit your issue right on the nail. This is a big question, after all, so I’ve put together a general sweep of the subject. If this post doesn’t answer your question, you can hit us up again with more information on the specific problem you’re having. The inbox should be open again soon <3
Conveying Emotion Through Body Language
Body language is a powerful tool in fiction – a means of communicating your characters’ emotions without having to come out and say it. Physical description breaks up scenes that may otherwise be heavy on dialogue or plot, and it contributes to a fuller image of what’s happening in each scene. But like any good thing, it can be misused or overused. Below, I’ll outline some tips on what to describe about your characters’ body language, and when to use it.
What to Describe
Obviously, there’s no limit to what about your character you can describe – but deciding what details to use can be the difficult part! There’s a book I definitely recommend for this, which goes through 75 different emotions and the body language that relates to them. I’ll give you a few starting points here:
- Head: tilting, bobbing, nodding, shaking, looking around, lowering, lifting.
- Eyes: widening, narrowing, blinking, rolling, averting, tearing up, twitching, squeezing shut, lighting up, dilating.
- Brow: furrowing, wrinkling, (eyebrows) raising, (eyebrows) lowering.
- Nose: twitching, wrinkling, sniffing.
- Mouth: smiling, frowning, smirking, pursing, opening, (jaw) dropping, (lips) pressing together; biting lip, gritting teeth, sticking tongue out, licking lips, pushing tongue into cheek.
- Jaw: dropping, clenching, shifting, grinding, jutting out, trembling.
- Shoulders: shrugging, hunching, slumping, tensing, relaxing.
- Chest: expanding, deflating, broadening, tightening, heaving (avoid for female characters).
- Arms: swinging, wrapped around (self), thrown out at sides, extended, behind back, stiff, bent, crossed, flexed.
- Hands: curled into fists, clasped, wringing, sweating, scratching (self), rubbing neck/shoulders/head, waving, knocking, tapping, nails digging into palms; in hair, in pockets, on face, on hips, over eyes, over ears, over mouth.
- Feet: tapping, kicking, turned in, rocking (on feet), skipping, walking, running, trudging, tiptoeing, hopping, dancing.
These are only the basics, of course! There are many more simple and complex mannerisms you can employ to tell us how your character is feeling about their current situation, conversation, or company. If you’re struggling to come up with your own ideas, people-watching or just paying attention to your own quirks throughout the day can give you tons of material.
When to Describe
So when you know the basic emotion your character is feeling (happiness, sadness, anger, discomfort, attraction, etc.) and how you want to show it, the question is when to introduce this information. Some writers make the mistake of including too much description, so that it interrupts the flow of the scene; while others struggle to include enough, so that their characters seem to be floating heads in the air – and every emotion must be communicated through dialogue. It’s all about striking a balance between those extremes.
To work on this, try to think about the reason behind the information you’re giving. Body language should be used to:
- add to the image of the scene – in other words, to avoid Floating Head Syndrome. Certain aspects of a scene will naturally come to your reader’s mind; they don’t need to be told that your characters are looking at each other during a conversation, or that they’re frowning while they’re crying, or that they’re smiling when they shout, “This is the best day ever!” It’s the things that aren’t implied that you should share – like when your character flops onto the couch with a sigh; or when they stare down at their feet as they kick a rock along and pretend to pay attention to their friend; or when they do something or anything that lets on to how awkward or clumsy or gentle or quirky or anal-retentive they are. Anything that helps the reader to imagine what’s happening, to see it in their heads, is a good thing.
- to express emotions without dialogue – or often, in spite of it. When your character isn’t talking, or when they’re lying, body language is your best means of expressing what they’re thinking, without that pesky internal dialogue. When your character wishes their unrequited love a happy wedding, show us how their shoulders sink and how the corners of their mouth tremble with the effort it takes to keep smiling. Let us feel the anger swelling behind your character’s stoic expression as they apologize to their boss, and how it melts into a burning face as they walk away. Show us how your character shoves their elbow into the kitchen table and subtly scratches their nose with their middle finger because their bigoted great-grandmother is making Thanksgiving very uncomfortable for everyone. Those are the big-ticket items.
As for timing, personally, I tend to space out this information every few paragraphs, especially in scenes with heavy dialogue. It’s best not to give more than three different descriptors in a row (e.g. “He sighed, wringing his hands, foot tapping anxiously, shoulders hunched, skin clammy” and so forth) unless the situation really calls for it. Body language should NOT be used to:
- fill space on the page – This is distracting, time-consuming for the reader, and can ultimately serve as a crutch for you as a writer.
- replace dialogue tags – Dialogue tags are not bad and shouldn’t be replaced entirely by character descriptors. Yes, they are interchangeable with body language, but one isn’t better than the other. No one wants line after line of:
“Words words words.” Sally yawned.
“Words words?” Rita stretched her legs.
“Words!” Sally sat up straight and reached for her glass.
After a while, you’ll find a rhythm to how often you interject description – when you catch your readers up on what your character is doing and how they’re feeling. Remember that if you’re having trouble coming up with descriptors in the moment, you can always add it in later. No worries :)
This is the most I can give you on the general topic of body language and emotions. If any of our followers have additional advice, be sure to add it in the comments or reblogs :) Thanks again, and happy writing!
– Mod Joanna ♥️