Focusing on facial expressions & fidgets: another common writing mistake (tip 59) Reply

Continuing our series on common writing problems, D.D. Johnston considers why some writers become over-reliant on describing facial expressions and fidgets. Every minute our bodies do a thousand little things: we smile and twitch and scratch and fidget and sniff and lick our lips and blink and breathe and blow hair from our eyes. When we’re writing, every sentence impresses on our readers’ valuable time, and reading about the minutiae of human movement is rarely a rewarding use of that time. Of course, sometimes people’s gestures are full of meaning, and this is the time to describe them. After watching the video, have a look at Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants” in which Hemingway describes only a few expressions and gestures, and never describes them carelessly.

Video transcript follows below:

I just blinked. I did it again. It’s like a habit or something. It’s like I can’t help myself. It’s as though I, like most adults, blink every six seconds or so. And I breathe! Yes, I breathe. In and out. In and out. All day long. Sometimes I absent-mindedly scratch my eyebrow. Sometimes I sniff. None of this is the stuff of great drama.

The worst sentence ever written is “She blinked.” It’s only worth saying your character blinks if she’s entered a staring competition.

Equally bad is “he exhaled.” Don’t tell me your character is breathing. Tell me if your character isn’t breathing. That’s news.

These are extreme examples of a general problem that occurs when authors focus excessively on the minutiae of human movement. Often this results from a desire to break up dialogue and a lack of anything meaningful to describe. For instance, consider this extract:

Jim looked across at her eyes, which were, he saw, looking left and right.  She breathed out, blowing the fringe away from her eyes.  Jim took a deep breath.  ‘There’s something I want to tell you,’ he said.  He felt his legs shaking and he placed his hands on his knees, trying to steady himself.

Hermione turned her head slightly towards him.  Her eyebrows were lifted like archways in curiosity.  ‘Go on,’ she said.

Jim realised that Hermione was looking directly at him, awaiting an answer.  He crossed his legs and leant his elbows onto the table.  ‘The thing is,’ he said, fiddling with his beer mat, ‘I’ve got feelings for you.’  As soon as he said it, he leant back in his chair, throwing his head back.

Hermione put her hand to her mouth and her eyebrows shot up still further.

That quickly gets dull because it’s fixated on the minutiae of human movement: eyes moving, legs crossing, eyebrows raising, etc.  There are three reasons why this is a problem:

  1. we should be able to imagine how your characters sit and move from what they’re saying and doing: we would expect Hermione’s eyebrows to rise in response to Jim’s declaration.
  1. Most humans have the same bits and move them in the same ways – if your character has a uniquely interesting gesture then by all means report it, but most human movement is boring.
  1. Finally, most minor human movements are not consciously registered – they’re not worthy of our attention in real life, so they’re unlikely to be worthy of our attention in fiction.

Thanks for watching and good luck with your writing.

The thumbnail for this video uses an image by Mark Spearman. It is covered by a Creative Commons license and you can find more of his work here:

The snoring sound was recorded by Popup Pixels and is covered by a Creative Commons license:

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