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.

Memories Held by the Senses

Body memories: the first crackling fire of fall when images of that time at the cabin in the mountains arise like the catch of flame. The old, familiar scent of Chantilly dusting powder, and there is Grandmother in her Sunday dress with its jet-black buttons. That song on the radio, and in comes the memory of love’s first dance and its bittersweet farewell.

Tango arms

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Invoking the Muse

We writers are a quirky lot with our habits, superstitions, and idiosyncrasies—whatever we believe it takes to get the attention of the muse or elicit inspiration. I have a friend who has a particular hat… another friend who insists on a certain pen… one who places a goofy little figure beside her computer while she writes and puts it away again when she’s done. And oh there are so many others.

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