Recently I received an email from Janis about my blog on mannerisms.
In one of your blogs, you gave a list of the trite mannerisms you don’t like to see repeated in fiction (knitting of brows, lip biting, narrowing of eyes, etc.) In looking over the list, it seems to me that if the writer needs to show that the character is experiencing anxiety or some other emotion, describing facial expressions is a necessity. If the author refrains from using any of those, he or she would have to end up “telling” what the character is feeling, instead of showing it. He felt nervous, he was mad, etc. (I know that you did say you would allow it once, maybe twice, but no more after that.) So, are you saying that we need to avoid facial expressions in relaying the emotion a character is feeling? Sounds impossible without some repetition. There’s only so many facial expressions available.
My answer: Writers become too dependent on the same facial expressions, described in the same way. That’s part of my complaint. Too much repetition. Another part of my complaint is that it’s really unrealistic. I want you to watch the next several times someone either says yes or no to some question put to them. See if they actually nod yes or shake their head no. I hardly ever see it happen unless the person cannot give a verbal answer. Also, I’m going to disagree with your statement “there are only so many facial expressions available.” There are billions of faces on the planet and quite a few more available in the minds of all the writers out there. Those faces can and should have distinctives that make them unique. And the way any one of those faces may react to a given emotion should also vary.
To respond to another part of your question, telling the reader a character’s emotional reaction is not necessary either. Sometimes the reader will “get” the reaction without either telling or describing the reaction. It can be done. The adept writer will find fresh ways to convey meaning to the reader. It’s a sign of maturity in a writer to avoid clichéd words and actions in their characters. One option is the use of simile or metaphor. Off the top of my head, how about something like:
Joe’s head bobbled like a dashboard ornament. (Instead of Joe nodded).
Linda’s face was that of a woman in labor. (Instead of Linda’s eyes widened in pain).
Two crude examples, but I hope you see that there are more creative ways of showing characters’ reactions.
About a month ago (after my blog on this topic and before your email) I read a wonderful description wherein the author conveyed the perfect response in his character without resorting to the trite mannerisms under discussion. I wish now I could remember where I saw it. In the next few days, I’ll try to watch for specific examples and post them here.
Readers, consider this as an invitation for you to submit examples from your own writing or reading that effectively shows a character’s reaction without resorting to the stale mannerisms we usually see.