Tuesday, February 3, 2009

In the Twinkling of an Eyebrow

Sharon Wildwind

My characters have very predictable bodies. When faced with emotional moments they get nauseated or their hearts race. Chills run up their spines if they are excited or sexually attracted, and down their spines if they are frightened. In fact, when I’m clicking along in an early draft, and don’t want to stop to think out physical reactions, I use [nausea], [spine chills] [heart races] as placeholders. That way I can later use a global find to locate all of those places where I need to come up with something else—anything else—please.

Admittedly, some body parts—kidneys and bladders for example—don’t lend themselves to expressing emotion. After a character suddenly realizes she should have made a pit stop before confronting the villain, or the detective aches every time he moves become someone sucker-punched him in the kidneys, where else can you go?

Livers are even worse, unless maybe you’re writing a historical mystery, set in a time when humors were believed to rule the body, and you can use a line like, “He awoke the next morning feeling liverish.” Maybe you could get away with, “She cast a jaundiced eye over the proceedings.”

The heart has been turned inside out and upside down in the name of good (and bad) literature. It’s raced, palpated, skipped a beat, contracted, stopped, restarted with a thunk in a character’s chest, melted, been broken, bent, torn apart, mended, healed, and in the immortal words of the late John Denver, “You dun stomped on my heart/And you mashed that sucker flat/You just sorta stomped on my aorta.”

Okay, let’s get serious about some body parts that authors can use to express emotions, starting with hair. Not the point-of-view character’s own hair because that’s almost always limited to “The hair on the back of her neck stood up.” or “So much for washing my hair. I flipped the greasy strands into a pony tail, double-checked the back-up .32 in my ankle holster, and was out the door in under two minutes.”

Hair on other characters can be a wonderfully sensual detail to which the point-of-view character reacts, even on the first meet. “He had three long sections of hair, which he’d carefully arranged in the classic comb-over, hoping I suppose, that I wouldn’t notice the pink scalp peeking through underneath. Kind of sad, actually. ‘Come on,’ I said, ‘Let’s get a cup of coffee. I’m buying.’”

And you can’t beat hair in romantic scenes. “He slept on his stomach, with his face turned away from me. I reached over and traced the baby-fine curls on his neck. Six small crescents lay quietly against his skin and a seventh one flipped and refused to lay flat. ‘That’s always the way the world works for you, isn’t it,” I thought. “On the seventh day, you never get it right.”

The all-time body-parts champions for expressing emotions are faces, hands, and skin. The problem is that writers use them up too fast.

“Her face darkened with anger.” That’s it. Face reference. Got to use another part of the body next time for variety.

Think about how many parts there are to the face: hairlines, eyebrows, eyelashes, upper lids, pupils, irises, lower lids, tear ducts, nose bridge, nostrils, cheeks, cheekbones, upper lip, Cupid’s bow (that’s the little dip the middle of the upper lip makes), lower lip, upper teeth, lower teeth, chin, and multiple kinds of skin. That’s just in a normal face. There could also be hair, moles, scars, etc. in the less-than-blemish-free model.

“Mrs. Adelle was one scary woman, too well-bred to admit to anger; too infuriated not to show something. Her pupils contracted, just a little. A small white line formed briefly along the top of her Cupid’s bow. A woman that controlled was bound to come apart one day. I just hoped I would be in the next state over when the springs burst loose.” It's a face reference, but there are still loads of face parts that could be used later in the story without the writer repeating herself.

It’s the same thing with hands. Four fingers, each of which has three knuckles; a thumb with two knuckles; a palm with loads of lines; fingernails; blood vessels; more skin—assorted variety—as well as a potential for calluses, scars, and age spots. Remember that Sherlock Holmes contended he could tell almost everything worth knowing about a man by looking at his boots, his clothes, and his hands.

So if you're stuck in a heart racing—spine tingling—face darkening rut, here's a way out of it. Divide a piece of paper into three columns. In the first column write down all the anatomy you can think of. Break multi-part features down into component parts. In the second column, trot out all the over-used conventions, no matter how bad. Just for a giggle, I often color this column purple—for purple prose, of course. Once you have the overused cliches out of your system, in the third column, try to come up with new ways that body parts can be used to express emotions. I hope you find some cool things there you never thought to use before.

Writing quote for the week:

Waves of hoo-haw washing through the protagonist, is a pet peeve…if your character is afflicted with rising tides of fear, chills of panic running through their spine, and roiling senses of panic …they are a victim of their body…pathetic, rather than interesting.
~Tim Esaias, author, poet, essayist, and writing teacher


Sheila Connolly said...

I laughed out loud when I tried to come up with an emotional kidney: "her kidney clenched? Twitched?"

And there are other, less lovely but no less indicative bodily functions (no, get your mind out of the gutter): his nose was running in the cold, and he scrubbed a gloved hand at it. I guess some villains spit, or pick their noses, and they may have hair growing out of their ears, or lumpy moles.

Sandra Parshall said...

The trouble is that when people are in dangerous/exciting circumstances, their hearts DO race and sometimes they DO feel queasy. That's a reaction every reader can immediately identify with, however hackneyed it may seem. It's not easy to come up with new ways yo express those reactions.

Julia Buckley said...

Some great ideas here, Sharon. I do tend to be a predictable writer, at least in draft one.

I agree with Sandra, though--there's a reason some of those have become cliches; they're so true.

Sharon Wildwind said...

Sheila, there are those gutter bodily functions, too, but this is a family blog. (grin)

Sandra and Julia, I agree about hearts racing and feeling queasy. I think you have to use the other things so you can save those for the moments that that work.