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?