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This is a Rant!

This is the reason I don’t really like writing “in scene.” Stupid shit like facial expressions.

I was going back over my YA novel manuscript, and came across the sentence, “He looked surprised.” And I was like, shit, I feel like if I bring this to my real-world writing group, they’ll be all, This feels like shorthand. I would like to know what surprise looks like. I want you to show me this.

If you want facial expressions, write a screenplay. Let some motherfucking actors interpret some motherfucking surprise.

I mean, what are my options here? Arched eyebrows? Widened eyes? Opened mouths? All that shit feels like the kind of cliche that makes my skin itch. It just all sounds really irritating.

So I just wikipediaed “surprise.” Yes, that is an actual thing I did. And turns out, our faces have only got five different ways they show surprise, three of which I already named above. No wonder they all sound so tired.

Here’s the full list:

  • Eyebrows that are raised so they become curved and high.
  • Stretched skin below the eyebrows.
  • Horizontal wrinkles across the forehead.
  • Open eyelids: the upper lid is raised and the lower lid is drawn down, often exposing the white sclera above and below the iris.
  • Dropped jaw so that the lips and teeth are parted, with no tension around the mouth.

Actually, if these facial expressions were described as they are above, especially the part abt “exposing the white sclera,” now that’s some shit I could get down with.

I guess one of the ways people reinvigorate facial expressions is w/ details specific to their characters, like, He arched his yellow eyebrows, the ones I’d admired since we were twelve and we yada yada.

Or they might pull in some kind-of figurative language about how the freaking eyebrows resembled… I don’t know… a sickle. The parabolas we studied earlier that day in math class. His naked back.

I don’t know, most of the time I feel like I suck ass at figurative language. It’s actually one of my major insecurities as a writer.

And in this instance, all that kinda shit seems really intrusive. Or forced.

What I really want to write is, “He looked surprised.”

To me, that sentence feels invisible, like using “he said” as a speech tag.

Not invisible as in wasted language, like a dead sentence. Because if that were the case, then it should just be axed, right? No, I want it there because I want that beat. Rhythmically. A breath between dialogue. And also, because I do want the word “surprise” to shape how readers hear the next thing the character says.

He looked surprised.

Can’t I just leave it at that?

28 thoughts on “This is a Rant!

  1. Hello.

    I think there is a way to go around this :)

    The sentence ““Scott looked surprised” points that you’re in another character’s POV, and the POV is noting Scott’s reaction to something.

    Is that so?

    If it is, can’t you have the POV be more personal about it, instead of simply noting Scott’s reaction? As in “I hadn’t expected Scott to be surprised at this, of all people.” I think that’s a bit cliche too, but you can dig in that direction (describing the POV’s reaction to Scott’s surprise) rather than describing Scott’s surprise (which you wrote that gives you very few options).

    (sorry for my English, I’m not very good with it)

    1. Naming Scott doesn’t necessarily imply 1st person POV, just that the character’s name is Scott, and that something outside of Scott is noting his surprise. That something outside of Scott could still technically be a 2nd or 3rd person narrator.

  2. Tim, these are good thoughts. I think a lot of people try to just wham, wham, wham with their sentences, without understanding that just as music needs dynamics in sound and volume, writing does, too.

    I tend to think of sentences in a matter of elegance, which is a beauty derived from simplicity. If you can write a beautiful sentence simply, do it. If, in context, that sentence is, “Scott looked surprised,” then awesome.

    This also reminds me of the “good hot beer shit” video of Bukowski, where he says, “Most poets can’t even write a simple line like, ‘The dog walked down the street.'”

  3. Scott, despite being one of those nonchalant people who regularly projected a sense of comfort and ease at being in the world—the partial result of his having been educated as a very young child in Switzerland and England, ever since which time he’d traveled extensively—not to mention his intimate knowledge of nature’s caprice, due to the sudden death of his parents in a freak sailboat collision on the eve of his return to the US, ten years later—reacted most curiously to the new sight: he lifted his brow, elongated his mouth, tilted his head back, and made a short, pitiful gasping sound—in short, he looked surprised.

      1. My first drafts are loaded with sentences like, “He looked surprised” (which I agree might be correct even in a final draft; it all depends on context). In fact, I take a perverse glee in making the first draft as bad and as cliched as possible—lots of lines like “her heart pounded in her chest,” etc.

        I consider it marked language I can have a field day revising come second draft. And sometimes it’s even fun to leave it. A carefully chosen cliche can be just as invigorating as the most acrobatic sentence.

        1. That is interesting.

          I think I need to get over this idea that if I have to think abt it, or labor over it, it’s bad.

          Or that every sentence should feel somehow divinely inspired or channeled.

          1. I used to think that everything had to be absolutely brilliant from the get-go. I never wrote anything.

            Then I started really using the draft process that I was telling students to use (and which I myself hadn’t been using). I proceeded to write like nine books in five years. It really freed things up for me. And I was able to get the language where I wanted it to be—I just didn’t have to do it all at once.

            That said, I don’t claim process-based writing will work for everyone. But self-hating hyper-conscious perfectionists like me should really try it out.

            1. I’ve had a similar thing happen recently where if the going is slow in the part I’m currently writing I just start writing sentences for another part of the story. It’s worked out really well!

          2. Yeah. I think there’s a definite middle ground to be found between the two.

            I mean, you don’t want to completely stop thinking about the language, but you don’t want to overthink it to the point of it not being honest/natural.

  4. That is one over-the-top sentence, Adam, reminds me of this DFW sentence contest some magazine held a while back. Too funny.

    I agree w/ you on the drafting method. I wrote a kinda self-conscious novel before “badbadbad,” which didn’t work in the end b/c I was trying so hard to be “literary.” When I finally realized this, I decided to bag it and dive into 3xbad as, ahem, unliterarily as possible. First draft was completed in 13 weeks, and the final draft, I think, is a hundred times better than my initial effort, and yet still there are plenty of literary elements in the text that I’m drawn to as a reader, like sound and image, carryovers from my history w/ poetry. All of which is to say self-hating hyper-conscious perfectionism is a waste of time, obviously, a wrongheaded track and a drain of creative resources, b/c we have the revision process for polish and a new paint job as necessary.

    Re: every sentence needing to be “divinely inspired,” Tim – I hear ya. But I’m now convinced that rather than pack every single sentence w/ poetry — b/c this is fiction not poetry — the narrative needs to breathe: some sentences should be crazy-beautiful perfection, while others can just move the action or scene or characters to the next place. Of course, if the “surprised” line drives you nuts later then it’s definitely asking to be cut or changed, no?

    1. Right, for sure. I think what I’m talking abt is less how stylized is each sentence and more whether I have to consciously think abt and puzzle over what words to use vs. sentences coming to me feeling a little more fully-formed. It’s a process thing. I think for a long time I operated under this myth that if it was truly inspired writing, I’d feel less like I was determining the text and more like I was channeling it. But I think sometimes that’s the case and sometimes not.

      1. Oh… yeah… I think that’s a zone thing. Sometimes I channel and sometimes I slave, but I don’t slave like I used to — when I’d labor over the sound and texture of every word, every sentence (coming from the Dylan Thomas school of poetry) — which I think has also enabled me now to channel far more often than slave, if that makes sense. My primary concern these days is to just get the words, any words, on the page. Then in revision, if I find that I’m laboring for too long on a sentence or phrase or word, then I know it’s probably OK to just cut ’em.

  5. I’ve found my writing process really changes dependent on the individual piece.

    For instance, there’s a story I’m working on that’s pretty straight realism, and I work on it with much more velocity. I’ll punch out complete paragraphs or scenes at a time and revise them later.

    But, this other story I’m working on that is much more magic realism, and I’ve found I can’t just punch out entire blocks of text. I really have to go sentence by sentence, and be really intentional about each one, and how it leads into the next.

      1. That’s a really good argument, actually, especially since I recently overhauled the entire structure into something more of a long-poem recently.

  6. Scott looked the same way he looked that day back in 1970 when he walked into his red brick row house living room and saw before his wide-peeled green kiwi eyes a shining and rectangular new black & white television set with two gigantic clear plastic knobs numbered in black with golden notches running round the rim. Scott looked surprised.

      1. Sharp question, Jesusangelgarcia. Not quite. Not Bawlmer. But I have a very close relationship with the place. I know it well. Better than well, I guess. Red brick row house. Lots of those around. Imagine one without a TV in 1970 though. If you want the definition of surprise you have to walk into a red brick row house to find a TV picture playing there.

        My final point is really that surprise never has anything to do with how you look anyway. I’m often surprised while I’m asleep.

        1. Tante grazie, Alessandro. Yeah, can’t shake the band thing. When I grab a microphone, I want to dive into the audience. Not often appropriate at a literary event. I’m also working on what to do w/ the papers during a reading. I feel like I need both hands. My two new methods: memorizing the words like a slam poet or printing the piece on a scroll and somehow unfurling it or rolling it up. Haven’t done the latter… yet. Thanks again.

          1. I like the papers. I think the struggle with the papers is part of the thing. The papers belong. Fight with them as much as you like. No reason to make it easy. You don’t want to look like a stand-up comic. Writers are much more interesting.

  7. “Scott looked surprised” sounds nice enough. There is also the choice of “surprise” versus “startled” or other words, and there are also maybe things he can say or things he can do with other parts of his body besides his face. And there is also maybe “Scott was surprised” instead of “looked surprised.” Or maybe “seemed surprised” which might be kind of cloying to have three S words in a row like that. I dunno. Seems like there are a lot of little choices. I really like this kind of sentence anxiety.

    But probably, “at the end of the day,” if the sentence blends in sonically with the sentences around it and does the work it needs to do in context, that is more important than imagining what a writing group would say, even a very attractive writing group like everyone in the Big Other comment section!

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