Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Beyond the Crooked Eyebrow, Part 1

Ignoring our emotions in the real world can literally cost us our lives; consider the most significant benefits of fear (escaping a house fire), despair (bringing help from others) and anger (the flight or fight response). Just as emotions are critical in real life, they are critical for the “life” of your story. A book without emotion will be D.O.A. And if that isn’t enough of a reason to give emotions their due attention, here’s another: Emotions directly impact character motivation.

We all know better than to bore our readers by “telling” emotion (e.g. he was sad), but can you show emotion without relying exclusively on raised eyebrows, widened eyes and other overused descriptors?

You can, and the how of it can be found in better understanding emotion itself.

Paul Ekman, in his book Emotions Revealed, says that in his multi-cultural study, he found that facial expressions for most emotions are universal—and there are more than 10,000 unique expressions. It usually takes a well-trained actor to command facial expression; the rest of us may unwittingly reveal ourselves in micro expressions—tiny moments of emotional leakage.

Ekman also talks about thresholds for revealing emotion: we all have them. What will it take to make you angry, sad, happy? These thresholds are pretty well set in us, although they can be reset if a person experiences “intense, dense (repeated again and again)” emotions, like pain or fear over a long period of time. (Ekman sites a nightmarishly long episode of intense physical pain as the impetus for resetting his empathy for others’ suffering.)

Imagine a few possibilities:

* Characters who are more and less in tune with reading facial expressions
* Characters who are more and less able to control their emotional leakage
* Increased conflict in your stories as more of your characters’ inner selves slip
* Increased emotional leakage as characters confront their core issues
* Personalizing your characters’ emotional thresholds according to unique histories
* Personalizing your characters’ responses to others’ emotions (consider empathy, anger, etc…)
All righty then—what actually happens to the face during each emotion? Let’s look first at sadness and agony. Depending on the situation and the level of upset, you may show one or nearly all of these expressions:

CHEEKS: A rise in the cheeks can mean sadness when accompanied by other signs of distress.
THE LIPS: Lips may stretch horizontally, or the corners may push down. The lower lip may be pushed up and trembling. Lips may be pressed together if someone is trying to suppress emotion. Lip corners can even lift slightly, but only because the cheeks are high. Lip corners can even turn downward dramatically in a pout, which can happen just before crying.
MOUTH: An open mouth signals anguish when accompanied by other signs of distress. Wrinkles may appear above the mouth leading to the nose when the cheeks are lifted.
THE BROWS: (As it turns out, they are important, especially when dealing with sadness!) The inner corners lift, a vertical wrinkle appears between the brows, they may pull down and together at crest of a cry.
THE FOREHEAD: The skin wrinkles at mid-forehead and the brows stay still. Darwin called this the “grief muscle.” (rare)
THE EYELIDS: They may triangulate. The upper lid may droop while the lower lid tenses.
EYES: The eyes are variable: they may be downcast, wide open, narrowed or squinted shut.
THE CHIN: The skin between the tip and the lower lip may wrinkle and be pushed out and up.

Reality check: Taking the time to clinically describe all the changes in a face would be overkill in fiction, but utilizing what you know about true emotion can help add authenticity to your work. Judy Cuevas chose a solid approach in her novel, Bliss: sprinkle expressive references throughout the scene instead of laying them on thick in any one place. In this outtake, the protagonist, Nardi, tells his fiancé that he intends to have affairs once they are married; she is crushed.
…“I will always be discreet. I will never embarrass you.”…

She tightened her mouth into a resentful look…

“I don’t mean for this to be painful for you. I will handle it as kindly as I can.”…

Marie Du Gard looked down. Her hand went to her mouth, covering her lips. She sat perhaps a minute like this. Then she took her hand away, sat up straight, and let her eyes settle on him again. These eyes were wide and watery, but in perfect control.… “All right,” she said. After a moment she added a bit defiantly, “And I will take lovers, too, if it pleases me.”

He nodded. “Certainly.”

She seemed almost dismayed. She looked down again. The awkwardness stretched out…“Will we have children?”

“If you want them. If you bring any home to me by someone else, I will acknowledge them. I will make your life as happy as I am capable of making it…What I hope for is that, ten years from now, we are the best of friends, kind to each other, realistic and compassionate partners, with a domestic—”

He would have continued, but surprisingly she broke down then. She covered her face and began to sob into her childlike hands—they were sweet hands, pink, fleshy, tiny, proportioned like a baby’s. He sat there, reaching across the table, nudging her elbow, crooning to his disillusioned bride-to-be that it wasn’t so bad, it wasn’t so bad….

But she was right. It was ghastly.

Note, Cuevas never once fell back on that old crutch, the crooked brow.

Next week I’ll take a look at what happens to the face when someone is angry, so stay tuned!


Blogger Robin Caroll said...

Good points, and I totally agree. I'm such a writing purist that I do detest telling. Now, I know we all must tell a little, but if I can tilt a head or arch a brow instead, I'm all for that one! :)

10:26 AM  
Blogger Kathleen Bolton said...

I write in first person, and characterization tags are the bane of my life! (sorry, Elmore Leonard, I had to use that exclaimation). Hopefully I can look beyond the lifted brow or the thinned lip soon.

1:55 PM  
Blogger Elena Greene said...

Great post! I really must look up this book.

Elena, whose characters smile and frown an awful lot, at least in first drafts

7:20 AM  
Blogger jackslyde said...

The crooked eyebrow is a favourite of mine in the first draft.

4:27 PM  
Blogger Therese Walsh said...

I overuse brows in my first drafts, too. "His brows furrowed," "He raised a brow," "His brow quirked." It gets laughable. I try to get more creative with the second draft, but it's hard, because the brow is a very expressive part of the face. I guess we all need to pluck our brows a little (groan; sorry).

9:57 AM  

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