gesture, revisited

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Craft
This post is 8 years old.

obama reactionWhen I saw this slideshow of facial reactions to Senator Obama, I was reminded of how hard it is to describe such things in fiction. I did write about this topic, but a long, long time ago. Here’s a reworking of one of those posts, to go along with the new image.


One of the hardest technical aspects of writing is (for me personally) the subtle interweaving of physical reactions (facial expressions, body language) with dialog and narrative. Every face is the same in its major features, unless there has been some accident of birth or fate. Two eyes, two ears, a nose with two nostrils, a mouth, a chin, a forehead. At the same time, every face is distinct in a million small ways, not only for its physical characteristics — is the jaw weak, or strong? does the forehead slope? are the eyes wide or close set? — but for the wide range of muscular play that results in what we call, so inadequately, expression. Paul Ekman, the psychologist who is best known for his research into the way the human face contorts itself, has found that there are seven basic emotions that are recognizable across cultures: enjoyment, fear, surprise, sadness, contempt, anger and disgust. Of course, it’s far more complicated than this for reasons having to do with everything from ethnicity and race to cultural training. And that’s the problem. Pick up any novel and pull out ten facial expressions. Most of them will repeat themselves very quickly. She smiled, frowned, wrinkled her brow, pursed her mouth. The same is true of body language, on a bigger scale. He drummed his fingers, pulled at his ear, scratched his jaw, tapped his foot. Most writers feel the need to pass along physical hints of what the character is feeling as she talks by means of facial expression (often from the POV of another character) and/or what she does with her hands and body. Sometimes this is part of the characterization, and sometimes it’s a way to break up dialog or make a scene more vivid, but whatever the intent, It’s actually very hard to do it well. Take a minute, look at yourself in the mirror, and try to describe what your face does when you are happy. Part of the problem is the linearity of language. In a split second five things might happen at once, but you have to describe those things one by one, or one after another. Here are some examples of how authors handle this particular challenge. I wonder how these writers would capture the expression of the older woman seen above.

He smiled at me with slightly raised eyebrows.

To the Nines, Janet Evanovich

She winced when I pinched his toe with a hemostat.

While I was Gone, Sue Miller

Milton’s brow was still furrowed with concentration…

Middlesex: A Novel, Jeffrey Eugenides

Rochester looked at me broodingly, his eyebrows furrowed and a look of anger rising across his features.

The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde

Sammy shrugged, nodding, mouth pursed.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon

…hair most exquisitely and severely cut, his half-glasses gold-rimmed, his mouth pursed, but pursed in American, more generous than English pursing, ready …

Possession, A.S. Byatt

I phrased it just a general question — but Jimmy Cross looked up in surprise. “You writer types,” he said, “you’ve got long memories.”

The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien

Paul D scratched the hair under his jaw.

Beloved, Toni Morrison

She raised her chin. I noticed that her hands were trembling.

All He Ever Wanted, Anita Shreve
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4 thoughts on “gesture, revisited”

  1. A challenge with describing body movement is that some body movements have seemingly universal meaning but others do not.A commonly described movement of body language is “she shook her head” or “she nodded her head”.For me the reader I find that a “nod” is almost always indicates an affirmative response of agreement.  But, I’ve come to realize that that I have a bias of expecting “a shake of the head” to be a horizontal movement meaning “no”.  So if the author has not clarified the movement with text such as “she shook her head in agreement” I’ve sometimes find the subsequesnt lines of dialog require rereading several times before I realize that my bias has put me off the path of the narrative.   

  2. @DianeMM:

    That’s an excellent point- my perspective is, of course, decidedly western. If I wanted to write a story set in Asia or Africa or South America, I’d have to learn a lot about the way gesture conveys meaning in those places.

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