Of the many things I learned from Deb Dixon’s “Goal, Motivation, Conflict” Workshop workshop, this quote stuck with me the most:
“You can do anything in writing, as long as you do it well.”
I struggle with describing how characters sound and their facial expressions. If I had a nickel for every time one of my critique partners said, “But how does (s)he sound when they say this?” and “What does his/her face look like right now?” I’d have enough money to buy a year’s supply of chocolate. But how often DO we need to describe facial expressions and tone of voice?
My conclusion: Not as much as you think.
As a critiquer, I notice wording and flow in a piece of writing more so than plots and character arcs and all that. More often than not, I see writers overusing things, whether it’s adverbs, passive voice, repetitive words, and yes, tone of voice and facial expressions.
Let’s see if I can show you what I mean with part of an impromptu flash fiction piece I wrote for Rebecca Postupak’s “Flash Friday”, not that this is a literary masterpiece in any shape or form, but here’s what I might do if I was TOO mindful of tone and expression:
Lana slid the crisp paper across the patio table. “Sign these,” she barked. “Why?” Joe whispered. His lips pursed as he stared down at the obnoxious logo: Burger, Smythe, and Villay, attorneys-at-law.
Her eyes became narrow slits and her voice sounded like two pots banging together. “All you want is your garden and your bush mistress.”
This is a snippet of dialogue, and I don’t know about you, but all those descriptions slow the pace for me. This couple is on the verge of divorce. The tension should move this along at a snappier pace. Take a look at how I really wrote it:
Lana slid the crisp paper across the patio table. “Just sign them.”
“You don’t want this.” Joe stared down at the obnoxious logo: Burger, Smythe, and Villay, attorneys-at-law.
“Why not? You left me a long time ago. All you want is that garden of yours and that silly bush of a mistress.”
Here we see no tone of voice and no facial expressions. What we do see is a different choice of wording to make the dialogue itself show us what these two might sound and look like as this little exchange is happening. In hindsight I think I could have also used stronger verbs to narrate their actions as well. Instead of “slid”, Lana might have “shoved” the papers toward him. Joe might have “glared” down at the logo and perhaps crumpled one side of the documents in his fist.
Readers will notice ANYTHING we use too often, so do your best to show what the characters look like and sound like by using strong, appropriate dialogue and action that fits the tone of the scene. Describe the tone of voice and facial expressions in moderation and also if they are important to what’s happening. For instance, if a character is lying, the tone of voice and facial expression could be tells that give them away.
Remember, the reason we read books as opposed to watching movies is so our imagination can join in and form the story in our own minds. If we feed the reader every single minute detail about how WE see the scene, their imaginations just sit there in the dugout and never get a chance to play.
For learning how to write tone of voice and facial expressions in fresh and new ways, I highly recommend Margie Lawson’s workshop or lecture notes on Writing Body Language & Dialogue Cues. She refers to some really good examples and includes some unique exercises to keep your descriptions from being blah and cliche.
Now go forth and write! ~Mysti Parker
Mysti Parker (pseudonym) is a full time wife, mother of three, and a writer. Her standalone Tallenmere fantasy romance series has been likened to Terry Goodkind’s ‘Sword of Truth’ series, but is probably closer to a spicy cross between Tolkien and Mercedes Lackey. Mysti’s other writings have appeared in the anthologies Hearts of Tomorrow, Christmas Lites, and Christmas Lites II. Her flash fiction has appeared on the online magazine EveryDayFiction. She serves as a class mentor in Writers Village University’s seven week online course, F2K. Currently, she’s working on her first historical romance and has two children’s books in the hands of a hard-working agent. When she’s not writing, Mysti reviews books for SQ Magazine, an online specfic publication, and is the proud owner of Unwritten, a blog voted #3 for eCollegeFinder’s Top Writing Blogs award. She resides in Buckner, KY with her husband and three children.