Writer’s Challenge #32: Describing the Effects of Emotion on a Character’s Face

We all know it: eyes can’t fill, can’t tear up, can’t water or leak; tears can’t roll down cheeks, or flood, or track. Lips can’t quiver, tongues can’t get tied, color can’t drain from faces. We can’t freeze and especially we can’t freeze like “a deer caught in the headlights.” Our mouths daren’t drop open, nor our jaws. We can raise our eyebrows, but we best not furrow our brows.

Oh! all the cliches we can’t write, and most especially we can’t write them when our characters are experiencing those Big Emotions. You know, the ones our writing group tells us we must “show” our characters experiencing, rather than just telling about it.

coverhuge_theressomethingHow I love it when I come across something in my reading that shows me how it’s done and is just so darn much fun to read. I came across this knock-out example while reading Charles Baxter’s collection, There’s Something I Want You to Do. In this example, from the story, “Loyalty,” the narrator, Wes, is describing what happens when he brings his long-absent ex-wife, Corinne, into the kitchen where his current wife, Astrid, is preparing dinner. (p.35-36)

“In the kitchen, Astrid has been sprinkling seasoning onto some salmon when she glances up and sees Corinne, who looks worse than she did a few minutes ago because of the kitchen’s overhead light. First Astrid looks at Corinne. Then she looks at me, and then she looks at Corinne again. Expressions pass across her face so quickly that you might think you hadn’t seen the previous one before the next one appears. First she’s confused: her eyebrows rise up. Who’s that? Then she’s in full recognition mode: her mouth opens, slightly, though she says nothing. Her tongue licks her upper lip. Then it’s time for pity and compassion, and her eyes start to water. Then she’s shocked, and her hand with lemon juice on it rises to her face. “Uh,” she says, but nothing else comes out. A little spot of seasoning stays on her cheek. Then she’s angry, and that’s when she looks at me, as if I were the cause of all this. But the anger doesn’t stay posted up there on her face for long. It’s displaced by an expression we don’t have a word for. You see this expression when someone is hit by circumstances that are much bigger than expected, and the person is trying to restore things to normal, which can’t be done. Actors can’t duplicate this look. It only happens in real life.”

For me, it doesn’t get much better than that — all voice-y and true to character and to the tone of the story. I just had to share it and recommend this collection of stories and, well, anything by Charles Baxter.

Got an example of a writer’s work that made you stop and go “Wow!” and have to share it with somebody and then write a love letter to that writer? I’d love to read it.

19 thoughts on “Writer’s Challenge #32: Describing the Effects of Emotion on a Character’s Face

  1. Thank you all for sharing such dialogue about “writing.” I’m hoping to get inspired to write something again…..so far, “nothing.”

    • Awwwww you sound like me. I could send you pages and pages of angst and agony from those times. I even started a sequel I have no intention of finishing. Not to panic. If I did it anyone can.

    • Hi Arlene,
      Oh so difficult to be in that place of wanting to write, but not writing. Fran Lebowitz said something about how she felt like a criminal when she wasn’t writing; “actually writing is much more relaxing.” She’s a very funny, sardonic writer. Anyhow, sometimes I think it’s easier to just pick up the pen and write about what’s right in front of you or what you had for breakfast, than it is to wait for “inspiration.” And like Natalie Goldberg told us, just start with ‘I remember…” and something is bound to show up.
      Sending love and luck, Judy

      • Hi Judy,
        I actually read Natalie Goldberg’s book years ago. Okay, so here goes: “I had two slices of toast for breakfast, a cup of French Roast Starbucks coffee (I grind the beans myself) and 1/2 glass of V-8 juice with vitamins. I always use jam on one of the toast slices because it gives me a feeling of ‘sweetness’ that the day is going to be a good one.”

        That’s all folks…

      • There you go, Arlene. Good on you! Now all you have to do is open this up: What about the French Roast (vs. another kind, for example), and why only 1/2 glass of V-8 juice? I’m curious about jam on only one of the toast slices. What about the other slice? I do love your comment about doing this because it gives you a feel of “sweetness” that the day is going to be a good one. You could open this little piece up to say where you eat your breakfast, at a table in the kitchen? a tray back to bed with you? outside on the patio? All kinds of ways you can just keep writing about any one of these. Put a comma instead of a period and keep writing. Explore. Have fun.

        Last night at my new class, “A Writer is Someone Who Writes,” we talked about how just getting into the habit of writing a few lines, a few minutes every day can make all the difference. I wonder if inspiration doesn’t come from the pages up, rather than from outside and into the pages.
        I’m so glad you wrote something!

      • Judy….You asked, so here goes: the reason I only put jam on only one piece of toast and drink 1/2 glass of V-8 juice is a little complicated. It involves a long-standing eating disorder I have had since age 17. I’m so fearful of gaining weight that I still count every calorie. That’s also why I use “I can’t believe it’s not butter (light) and mayonnaise (lite).
        Have a wonderful Wednesday!

      • Hi Arlene,
        I’m so glad you’re writing and hope you find something every time you sit down that intrigues you or puzzles you or brings you joy or launches memories. Just start with one detail and follow where the pen will lead.And then do it again and then again until it becomes a habit.

  2. I must not fully understand the “show don’t tell” maxim, because although there are parts I really like about this, I could have done without spelling out confusion, recognition, pity, compassion and anger. Aren’t raised eyebrows enough? Aren’t the mouth and tongue movements? I like the last one, “But the anger doesn’t stay posted up there on her face for long…” And so on, until the end. Prior to that, I just felt I was being led by a firmly grasped hand through the other descriptions of expression, instead of beckoned with a subtle finger. But perhaps that’s just me. Always willing to learn.

    • Yabut…. Not-Judy here but I did just revise my e-book for print and in so doing I changed a lot of stuff. Like showing instead of telling and telling the reader to do same. The reader is a funny creature. They won’t believe you unless your words touch their own same-experience of what the character feels. I guess feels is the word there, kinesthetic. I would say they have to understand that the character’s body did when they opened the door and saw –. Then the reader empathizes with the character which is exactly what we want.

      As I say, Not-Judy signing off. We always want to know what the master has to say!

    • Hi Deborah, thanks so much for your comments about the excerpt from Charles Baxter’s story. Maybe I used “show, don’t tell” as the wrong angle from which to view the excerpt. It could be that this section struck me so wonderfully is because of where it falls in the whole of the story, which not everyone has read. Maybe because it is so “voice-y,” (so true to the narrator’s and the story’s unique voice), or maybe because I fell head-over-heels for this whole collection of stories, that I loved that passage so much. And still do. I loved the way we were slowed down and, through the narrator’s careful study of her, led through every emotional note on the character’s face as she experienced the myriad emotions that accompanied the appearance of the ex-wife. For me, this let us know how much was at stake for him.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment and observation of the excerpt. You remind me that we each have our unique take on every word a writer writes, every sentence, and every description, and what one reader loves, another reader may not respond to at all. This happens to me often when I use examples in my classes and workshops, and shows me my own prejudices. I’m always willing to learn, too.

  3. This is scary. I just finished working revisions on a chapter where I discuss just this, characters and their stuff. In the meantime I can’t read anything for fear I will unconsciously write it in. It’s done now so it’s safe.

    And you get credit for showing me with A Writer’s Book of Days how that writing is done. I write short love letters see, one sentence.


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