Need Your Help: How Do You Describe Facial Expressions in Fiction?

So I recently posted about the importance of facial expressions for authors. Today, I received a comment about facial expressions in fiction. It was a good question: How do you do this effectively?

I’m curious about this, too, so I posted this question here. I know there are several great fiction writers out there, so I’m hoping some of you will share your ideas about this.

We can just say that the girl looked happy. But show is often preferred over tell, right? There are also other ways to show that she was happy (e.g. she was jumping up and down, waving her arms wildly, when she saw me get out of the bus), but suppose we wish to describe facial expressions (not necessarily happy ones). Who has some good advice for how to do this?

How about describing faces, period. I’ve read some books where a face was described as “angular,” for example. I didn’t have any idea what that meant, so I really had trouble visualizing the character. If you have suggestions for how to describe a face in clear terms that will aid in visualization, with or without facial expressions, please share your ideas.

Thank you.

The funny thing about this blog is that when I ask for comments, very often there aren’t any, but when I don’t, sometimes there are plenty. Perhaps today will be an exception to the rule. 🙂

15 comments on “Need Your Help: How Do You Describe Facial Expressions in Fiction?

  1. You stare at the face in your hand then you write.

    For example, in my head now, I can see him with eyes wide and eager, dancing in their golden brown frame. His eyebrows lifted up in wonder as he grinned at her, his dimples sliding in and out. His upper raised in a gentle slope above his opened mouth……..

    Think of the shape of the mouth, think of the expression of the eyes, think of the movement between the teeth and the lips, think of the eyes etc

    I do not know if this makes sense to you but that is how I picture expressions in my head.

  2. This is hard to answer in a generality because it probably depends on context. I’m not the most descriptive person in a visual sense I think, so I’m no expert, but when I do try to describe a face I might comment that it is like some form of animal or bird – ‘hawk like face’ for instance, or talk about the overall feeling that comes from it ‘warm and caring’ or ‘cold and disdainful’. Not sure any of this is brilliant though!! 🙂

  3. I only ever describe one facial feature at a time, like “she twisted her lips to one side,” or “she slowly let her gaze sink to the floor and let it stay there.” But the trick, I think, is to link the expression to something else so that the readers have a point of reference to visualize the rest and understand the emotion. Dialogue is really helpful, obviously. Something like, “Ellen squinted her eyes at Daniel. ‘I don’t trust you,’ she said,” smacks you over the head with an image and makes more sense than just, “Ellen squinted her eyes.” Why? Why is she squinting them!?

    Context is probably the most useful thing. “Ellen frowned at the equations in front of her” expresses confusion, while “Ellen frowned at Daniel when he couldn’t explain where he had been last night,” probably expresses a combination of anger/disapproval/sadness.

    The one thing that bothers me the most is when people get overly descriptive, especially in the middle of an action scene: “Daniel pushed her out of the way as a field of bullets slammed into the wall. ‘Thanks,’ Ellen said, her pale pink lips spreading across her face, revealing her teeth and pushing dimples into her skin.” Unless there is something extremely important about the fact that she has teeth, I really don’t need to know this. You could have just said, “she smiled,” and then moved on to saving their lives (or not).

    If you really have to describe a character, do it through another character or your narrator. “Ellen’s cheekbones looked like they were trying to slice their way out of her skin. Daniel stared at the single apple she had brought for lunch and thought about buying her a cheeseburger.”

    Long explanation, sorry about that. Apparently I’ve gotten picky about what I read.

    • Thank you for taking time to provide several good examples. 🙂 That’s a good reminder not to interrupt the flow, and that sometimes quickly telling (or even omitting details) may be better than showing. Speaking of overly descriptive, there is a book that begins by saying something like, “The beauty was indescribable,” and proceeds to describe it for several pages.

  4. Personally, I tend to keep expressions a bit vague, is, ‘he furrowed his brow, pursed his lips’, etc. Based on the context, people generally connect the dots themselves and form their own idea of a character’s facial expression, and engaging the imagination is an important part of the written medium. Of course, if we all wrote the same, what a boring world it would be. Do whatever works for you. 🙂

  5. I had a statue on the old cover…the one I currently use. The angelic cherub had a “reflective” facial expression. It was too serene. The new cover, which I have yet to unveil, has a mischievous face, but with a tear in the eye. This was changed because the angel and fairy and babies that delude an old woman in my book have a generally sad overtone relating to tragedy, but are also, particularly in two chapters, a bit spiteful.

  6. Great question. I try not to use “feeling” words like happy, surprised, or sad, because I want the reader to interpret that through what I show: hands clenched; eyes widened; pursed lips–a fence that says “Do not cross.” I’m pretty sparse in my description though. *shrugs* I like metaphors and similes. I tend not to describe noses, unless there is something different about them: i.e., broken, listing to one side, whatever.

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