Brow-raising, lip twitching and fingernail biting. Yeah.

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My characters’ eyebrows are very mobile. They raise, lower, arc, meet. One goes up, the other down. It’s an issue, one my CPs and beta readers take glee in excoriating me over.

I can’t help it! In real life I’m always paying attention to non-verbal communication, but there are only so many ways to describe non-verbal cues in a novel. I fully I admit it gets old, all the eyebrow raising, lip twitching and finger fiddling.

When it comes to “face-to-face” interaction, there is so much to be gained by paying close attention to non-verbal communication. I watched an episode of Vikings with my son not long ago, and there was a scene that was almost silent. There were a few words (none terribly memorable), but the non-verbal communication between the characters, and more importantly, toward the audience, was crystal clear. At least it was to me.

My son didn’t infer nearly as much as I did, which illustrates the dangers of depending on non-verbal cues. 1) Someone has to actually pay attention to non-verbal language, and then 2) they have to interpret it exactly how the writer/director/actor meant it. Which can be tricky.

Take, for example, a tense interview on a news magazine. The subject is sitting there unable to make solid eye contact with the interviewer. AHA! I say. Look at that liar! But what looks to me like nervous lying may be something else entirely. Maybe the subject’s eyes are darting about because the interviewer’s got something large and unsightly hanging around her nostril, and if the subject doesn’t look away, he knows he’ll only stare at that ONE spot. How would I, the viewer know? The answer, of course, is I can’t. I’m making assumptions, sometimes judgements.  The interpretation of non-verbal communication will always, always be subject to interpreter bias.

As a writer, this is important to keep in mind. Obviously, novel-writing (graphic novels excepted) is not a visual medium, but I, for one, do want readers to “see” my stories play out in their minds. With nothing for the eyes to interpret, though, non-verbal cues in writing have an added layer of obfuscation. Beyond interpreter bias, we are dependent on the reader to imagine what the writer describes.

Some cues lend themselves to visualizing better than others, which is why they tend to be the overused ones. Eyebrows go up, eyebrows go down. It’s relatively universal that when brows are lowered, it’s a negative. Scorn or anger, perhaps puzzlement. I’ve yet to see or read of lowered brows indicating joy or happiness. But let’s say I write, “His brows lowered, and the corner of his lip seemed to have developed a tic.” Is the character mad? Disgusted? About to start crying? It could be any of those things, and of course, context matters. But  sometimes the more you, the author, say, the less clear it gets.

The use of non-verbal communication in writing is very much tied to the “show, don’t tell” mantra. It’s also a word burner. A writer friend and I were conversing online and I sent an emoticon. This one: >;-| She called it “winky disdain,” which I thought was brilliant. Two words to describe it perfectly. But if I were to use this facial expression in my story, I’d probably blather on trying to be more specific: “…one eye squinted under lowered brows, her lips pressed flat…” TEN words. Here is the danger. I prefer the ten-word description, to maximize my chances that you, the reader, will see it the same way I do. In fact, if I use so many words, you damn well better see it the same way I do. Otherwise I’ve wasted 8 precious words. But I can’t guarantee it, can I? I could have used “winky disdain” and left it up to your interpretation, and many, many skillful writers do exactly this.

I’m a “visual” reader, so when I write, I do a lot of trying to manage what the reader “sees.” Thus my [over-]dependence on eyebrows. For now, my CPs and betas will have to keep admonishing me while I search for the happy medium, one that involves just the right balance of word-burning imagery and verbal efficiency.

“One of these days I hope I’ll figure it out,” she said, her lip wobbling.

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4 thoughts on “Brow-raising, lip twitching and fingernail biting. Yeah.

  1. Ha! I remember betaing your MS and noting how often an eyebrow was raised. I agree that “show don’t tell” can be verbose, and that’s why I don’t always think it’s good writing advice. “Winky disdain” is concise, clever, and more effective than a long string of worded facial expressions. I’ve accepted that, at least for me, words will always be inferior to videos in conveying the visual (hence the cliche “a picture is worth a thousand words”). I mean, how do you describe a Monet in a way that faithfully replicates (or even comes close to) the experience of seeing the actual painting? I’ve sort of given up. Now I try to focus on what words are better at, e.g. conveying inner thoughts.

  2. You’re farther along than me, Alex. But I’m getting there, thanks to my generous betas and CPs. I don’t think I’ll ever eliminate verbose, though. You know me… 😀

  3. Hey Elaine, I’ve been accused of too much stage management, too. I think it comes from a desire to show, not tell (this is a good thing, right?) And betas tag me on it, so I’m still dialing it in.

    • I’m such a visual writer in that it’s often like a movie unreeling in my brain. So of course, I must describe everything I see, whether you need to hear about it or now. I’m working on it, I swear! 😀

      Thanks for stopping by, Cathleen!

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