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Describing expressions in written form?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Kalshion, Jul 7, 2020.

  1. Kalshion

    Kalshion Dreamer

    One of the biggest issues I've had is writing out expressions in a written form. Now, this doesn't mean I don't know how to write that so and so sighed or so and so exclaimed or so and so shouted.

    What I mean is the more complex expression, this is a snip from the story I am writing:

    "The nine year old grumbled, shaking her head and planting her elbow on her desk, and resting her chin in the palm of her hand. She didn’t like their homeroom teacher, he was mean, cruel, and seemed to have issues with female students. This was made more apparent when he snapped at Ryne for her giggling, causing her friend to stand up and apologize, before sinking into her seat in embarrassment."

    What is the proper expression for what the character did? And is there any writing material out there that can actually describes this?

    I know this question may be odd, I've been writing for a long time, but it's become a very bad habit of mine to side-step certain expressions and make the characters reactions bland. I want to stop doing that, especially with this story as its the first I've worked in over six years.
  2. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    If there was one word to sum up what the kid was feeling/expressing, I'd say "displeased."

    You can tell me to take a flying leap if I'm overstepping my bounds here, but IMHO, you're trying too hard to get an exact physical picture across the reader. The reader doesn't need you to tell them every last detail of the character's body language. Often times less is more. If you choose a good cue/descriptor to highlight, it will lead the reader to imagine the rest. Combine that with the right words to give the reader a feel for the emotional landscape of the character, and you'll get your point across.

    When you focus on the physical and add too many descriptors, you waterdown the power of the words you do select.
  3. ShadeZ

    ShadeZ Maester

    There is a pro to making some characters "bland" in that some people girl aren't super expressive and are very apathetic and calm natured. However this is considering it is intentional "blandness". There also is the chance to pull a "still water runs deep" move were a previously bland or quiet character suddenly rockets to the top of the interest list. For example a guy who hasn't said much the whole book suddenly is able to manipulate and outthink his enemy (for good or bad motives is up to you). In real life, quiet people who arent shy are usually calculating and highly observant in my experience.

    As for the description thing, keep it short and simple most of the time for example if the above was displeasure then maybe go with something like she grumbled and crumpled her face with displeasure. If it was something like anger though go with something like her eyebrows tightened and she frowned with anger at (person).

    Hope it helps.
  4. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    A lot can be done with how the material is presented without using any single word for an expression, and all using more or less the same words. And, why say she dislikes the teach? And really, an expression is a tell.

    ... banged her elbow on the desk and rested her chin in the palm of her hand. Her home room teacher was a puke. Mean. Cruel. Vindictive.

    I would work the rule of three in terse statements. You know she doesn’t like him. You know she’s irritated. Now, the thing against girls as written above is also a tell, and I’d make the example more obvious. Without a comparison to a boy, what you have is not evidence of prejudicial treatment.
    Leonardo Pisano likes this.
  5. FifthView

    FifthView Vala

    I tend to agree with PenpilotPenpilot here. Less can be more. Of course, more can be more, too, and stylistic choices might lead to more or less. :sneaky:

    Your example is a little too telly for my taste.

    That sentence is merely telling us how she felt and her impressions of the teacher. Is the nine year old the POV character in this section of the story? Ah, I see DemesnedenoirDemesnedenoir has replied while I've been typing this; I was about to suggest something like "teacher was a puke." I.e., something expressive in her voice would work wonders. I don't know that his "Mean. Cruel. Vindictive" is the direction I'd go. It's telly; but otoh, it could also be read or experienced as coming from the POV character directly, in her voice, and could be fine.

    You could expand upon the passage to show instead of telling, perhaps—if you did use a comparison to a boy.

    Ryne giggled, and he snapped at her. She jumped to her feet, apologized, then sank into her seat, her face red.

    In the seat beside Ryne, Annice shuffled her papers and looked away; but she kept shuffling them, and he glared at her, his eyes flickering between her hands and her obvious sidelong attempt to ignore him.

    Bobby and Davin poked each other behind his back, chuckling loudly and shaking their heads at the girls, but he seemed not to hear them as he returned his withering attention to her.

    Essentially, consider how you view people in your own, real-life everyday world. You don't see inside them, don't hear their thoughts. All you can do is experience their behavior, from without. So they move, they speak (or snicker, or grumble), etc. And from these signs, you can easily develop an impression of how they feel, their internal experiences. It's not an exact science, but it works surprisingly well. My advice would be to do the same thing in your prose. Give readers this same external experience—we are external to the people in the scene. But we can still get the impression that we are there with them in the scene, able to know how they feel, and/or able to sympathize with them, by seeing how they act within the scene and to each other.

    With a strong POV character voice, you are also able to deliver thoughts, like calling the teacher a puke—so there is this cheat, heh! But I'd suggest giving those thoughts personality, make it her voice. Don't simply tell as if you are writing a Wikipedia entry. In this way, her personality, shining through, is "like" showing us. I mean, it's us experiencing her directly. (Because we readers are gifted with this ability to see inside a character, when the author grants us access....)
    Last edited: Jul 7, 2020
  6. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    >The nine year old grumbled, shaking her head and planting her elbow on her desk, and resting her chin in the palm of her hand.
    You asked about how to write expressions; so, facial expressions and body language, right? The rest of the sample isn't about that; those sentences carry other weight. I'll stick with the original question.

    You have three expressions here, one verbal and two physical. You could look more carefully at each. Why did the kid grumble? Is that an appropriate reaction? Equally important, is it a meaningful reaction? Is she going to grumble again elsewhere in the story, or is this just sort of a throwaway? What does it add to the moment for the reader?

    You can ask the same questions about head shaking and resting her chin in the palm of her hand. If this is the MC, then it's good to give her a few (very few) physical mannerisms to indicate her mood or reaction. If it's a marginal character, this is probably too much information.

    I'll note one problematic statement. You have her shaking her head at the same time she's resting her chin in her palm. The use of the present progressive makes these actions simultaneous.

    Another way to go about this is to ask yourself what is the emotion you're trying to communicate here, and then ask what mannerisms or expressions will best communicate that. Speaking of expressions, we don't have any here. There's no description of the face at all. No narrowing of the eyes, for example. She doesn't cover her mouth and stick out her tongue. Wrinkle her nose. Her mouth doesn't turn down.

    More generally, I always try to put myself in the moment. I'm old, but I have no trouble recalling a teacher I did not like in school. I can picture myself disapproving of them. At the extreme, I might try making a face in a mirror, to see what that looks like, but really all one need do is pay attention to close-ups in movies.

    And finally, there are expressions then there's your character, and it's good to be on the look-out for ways to make your character unique in some way. For example, this kid dislikes the teacher. He's mean and she has the natural distaste of all nine-year-olds for meanness. So, scowling or making some other sort of face is natural. But there are ways to spin that. One sort of kid is brazen and makes the face openly. Another sort is subversive; she sticks out her tongue but it's only for an instant, and she's expert at catching the instant when the teacher is not looking her way, but other kids are. Still another hides the gesture entirely.
    Leonardo Pisano likes this.
  7. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

    This is my usual approach. I don't always do it in a mirror, but I will act out the expression or gesture (or both) and then describe what I just did. I also keep notes on common expressions each character uses. For example, I have one who's a pencil nibbler and tends to run his fingers through his hair when he's distressed.
  8. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    Telly kind of depends on the TA and the voice. If you are in a tight third, you’re kind of expressing the character’s thoughts anyhow, and in a MG/YA (which the protag seems to fit) telly works, Much like -ly adverbs, LOL. I wouldn’t write it that, but I was sticking to the general premise as written. Calling them a puke is telly. So, it really depends on many factors. If the teacher being whatever is super important, then it would be better to “show”, but if it’s just a we’re in this class once, blah blah blah... then the world of telling opens up.

  9. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    I will often "tell" with gestures or expressions.

    "Cara made a dismissive gesture." Or, "Jake's face twisted in disgust," as opposed to trying to describe the twisting or exactly what Cara did with her hands.

    The reason for this is simple--different people may interpret gestures and expressions somewhat differently, so describing the gesture or expression risks at least some level of misunderstanding between what I want to convey and what the reader receives. "Telling" what the gesture or expression is meant to convey allows the reader to picture her own idea of a dismissive gesture or expressive face. I like that better as a reader so it's what I tend to do as a writer.
    A. E. Lowan likes this.
  10. Kasper Hviid

    Kasper Hviid Sage

    Like Skip, I also had a hard time imagining her grumbling, shaking her head, and resting her head in her palms, all in one go. It's information overload and I can't figure out how it's supposed to fit together. Being pissed about something does make you more physical, so I get what you're aiming at, but there needs to be some more connection.

    There are some key phrases that you can use to convey certain gestures, for example:
    —"muttered under her breath"
    "shuffled her feet"
    "her eyes lit up"
    "fell into a swoon"
    "pounding his temples"
    "stroked my chin thoughtfully."
    "set his jaw resolutely"

    But if you can't find a way to quickly get the pose across, it just isn't worth it, unless you can have that elaborate description strengthen your prose somehow.

    Personally, I would go for this:

    "Muttering a bad word under her breath, she threw herself forward, planted her elbows on her desk and her head in her palms, her pose announcing to the empty classroom that this, right here, was one highly displeased nine-year-old."
  11. Kalshion

    Kalshion Dreamer

    Thank you all for the advice, it is true that I try a bit to hard. Probably doesn't help that I used to read Tom Clancy novels when I was younger. Sadly I no longer have those books as they were lost in a fire :(

    But I've gone and rewrote that entire scene now, adding more context to why the girl would be angry and adding a few of her classmates (boys in thi case) acting up like the brats they are.

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