1. Artist369
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    Artist369 Active Member

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    The dreaded furrowed brow and narrowed eyes

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Artist369, Nov 3, 2014.

    So I've been reading editors who say (rightfully so) to avoid cliches and tired phrases. Problem is, I can't seem to convey the following in fresh ways:

    The phrases are used too often, yet I have no idea how else to capture the feel of both. My writing (I am sorry to say), is littered with them. Show this beginner writer the light, please.
     
  2. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's not just the wording that is cliche. It's the entire action. Not only that, but in most cases, it's probably unnecessary.

    Maybe the the cat I am developing a crush on raises her brows much like my dead wife- that might be worth commenting on- but if its just to show the reader that someone is furrowing their brows...really not necessary.

    Look, you're writing a novel, right? You got 70- 100k words for your novel, that's it. Make it interesting and make it good. The words you use matter (if you're not interested in writing crap, at least). You want to tell me a story about John and his three wives who don't know about each other. OK, great, show me the story and while you're showing me the story, show me GOOD stuff, not LAME stuff like narrowing eyes or going to the bathroom or taking Tylenol, why the hell would I even care about that? It's not like I don't already know that stuff happens.

    Breaking this habit (to me) is what separates the wannabe writers from aspiring writers who are finally taking their craft seriously.
     
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  3. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    As somebody who started out using a few of these cliches, and inventing a few of my own (!) I'd say just write as fluently as you can. Don't worry about it too much during the first draft.

    Then, during the editing process, put the offending words or phrases into the find-and-replace facility in your wordprocessor, and see how many times you've used these phrases. (It's YIKES time, if you're anything like me!) Then think up a different way to portray each instance.

    This is easy to say, a bit harder to do! But it's likely to be more of a problem with visualisation rather than wording.

    If you can visualise the hurt person speaking (or doing whatever they're doing) you will be able to see more than a stereotyped 'furrowed brow.' How do they stand? Sometimes they might actually strive to hide their feelings, so their expression might actually go blank. Or they might even make a joke or laugh, in order to disguise their true feelings. Do they react in a physical way, by shrinking a bit, or turning away? Will they snap back at the person who hurt them, or do they hesitate before speaking at all? See how many ways you can visualise these scenes, and be patient. WAIT till the vision is complete. Then work with what you're seeing and hearing.

    The only way to make writing come to life for the reader is make it come alive for yourself. You don't need a massive vocabulary, but you do need to envision the scene and then use your powers of observation.

    Good luck. And good on you for recognising you need to work on this writing fault. That's the first step you need to take if you want to correct a fault ...recognise it!
     
  4. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I wouldn't work too hard to avoid them. Depends on the genre, but facial reactions are sometimes important, and trying too hard to avoid standard descriptions can lead to some tortuous writing.

    If characters are having a conversation and one of them responds nonverbally, you have to show that response in order for the conversation to make sense. As jannert said, if you've OVERused a certain response, you can pick that out in editing. But if you've just got characters furrowing their brows a couple times in a full-length book, don't worry about it. That's what they did, and that's what you called it. You're fine.
     
  5. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I agree with BayView, although I don't think I've ever written "she furrowed her brow"; I use it as a description rather than an action. As long as they aren't doing it every page I don't see it as a major problem, and people immediately know what the character is doing. Trying to describe the look any other way could end up very convoluted. To me, things like that are useful to get the point across short and sweet, so one can move on to the important action.
     
  6. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Just my 2p added in to the soup:

    So, you understand that it's not about getting rid of all of them, just paring them down. With that said, as higher vertebrates, we have a strong inner fixation on the face. It has a lot of information to tell us. Notice that even your dog looks you in the eye, in the face. Such a different creature, but it too has the same fixation and recognizes "this is the data input/output center of the food giver, look here". They also sniff butts, but that's beside the point. Remember that there is an entire post-cranial body there for the character to use to portray information other than the overworked descriptions of eyes and smiles.
     
  7. plothog
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    plothog Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Good topic. It's something I struggle with a little.

    I do often want to show a character looking angry, suprised etc.

    Writing "Jim looked suprised" can be considered telling rather showing and we're often encouraged to put something in to show he's suprised instead.
    So I might write "Jim's eyes widened" instead. Which I don't think in of itself is bad. Peoples eyes often do widen when they're suprised.
    I'm not sure a natural normal thing could quite be defined as cliched.
    On the other hand if eyes are widening every chapter, it does start to look a bit weird.
     
    Last edited: Nov 3, 2014
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  8. plothog
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    plothog Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    To add to my previous musings. A lot of the time you can show the emotion with carefully chosen dialogue instead.
    I think often I end up putting in the facial expressions because I'm trying to break up too much dialogue. Often when it comes to editing it turns out there are other ways to do that. For example I might have a block of dialogue followed by some actions. Sometimes those actions can be done at the same time as the dialogue.
    Of course if you're trying to have some interesting subtext to a conversation, then the words that come out of a characters mouth aren't going to convey their emotions correctly. That's when the facial expressions become even more tempting. If you've got your characters doing other things during conversations, that can give you more options for reactions. They've suddenly got items that they can slam down in anger or a task they can fumble when they get suprised.
     
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  9. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I think we all have tendency to stretch the word cliché out into similar, but not exactly the same meaning. I think in this case presented by the OP, overused would be a better description.
     
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  10. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Honestly I can't think of any good novels that rely on these sort of facial descriptions
     
  11. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    While I only had the resource, "The Emotion Thesaurus", a short time (it's a popular library book here), and it didn't have all the emotions I was looking for, I did learn from it that we often look too narrowly at the face. It's understandable. Like @Wreybies noted, it's human nature. Newborn infants are naturally attracted to faces demonstrating it's hardwired in our brains.

    In the resource, much more is available to the writer than just the face. On the book's website, Writers Helping Writers on the Net there is a link to a free pdf file which supplements the book:

    Emotion Amplifier.
     
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  12. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Here is the word count for three famous novels (which I picked off the top of my head) for these four supposedly common words. Bear in mind smile obviously includes smiled, smiles, but not smiling,etc.

    The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway:
    smile: 50
    eye: 49
    eyebrow: 0
    mouth: 13
    grin: 5
    total word count: 67,707

    Lolita by Nabokov :
    smile: 50
    eye: 196
    eyebrow: 12
    mouth: 41
    grin:14
    total word count: 112,473

    1984 by Orwell:
    smile:18
    eye: 151
    eyebrow: 2
    mouth:39
    grin: 2
    total word count: ~101,000
     
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  13. Artist369
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    Artist369 Active Member

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    I have been using this resource a bunch already, but thanks for the link. I'm trying to decide whether to buy the print version or the e-book.

    By far the most helpful response. Thank you so very much. I am currently reading one of Margie Lawson's writing lectures I purchased online. They focus on body language and other nonverbal forms of communication. I'm not up to the level of subtly as she is at recognizing these minute cues (which is why I struggle to move beyond phrases I've heard countless times before to substitute for them), but you are absolutely right, it's all about visualizing, not clever word choice or thumbing through a thesaurus. Thanks for the tip. That has really changed my perception of how to think about it.


    In fact, that is exactly what I plan on doing:

    Source

    He's absolutely right, and I want to do better. Sure, I can settle for these phrases, but I don't want to. I think the key is moving past relying on them as simple beats, and instead using body language and gesture as a more meaningful reactionary communication.

    You can get away with that when you are Hemmingway or Orwell or Nabokov. Today's editors are not the editors of the last century. They see thousands of manuscripts. They know that fresh writing sells. I can write however I want, but I want to write to their caliber, thus, I ought to pay attention to their articles, books, and lectures if I'm serious about breaking into the industry. Advice has been to minimize the use of the word "smile", and when it is used, use it in a way that invokes a mental image rather than just as a beat.

    From a lecture by Margie Lawson- a well respected psychologist and paralanguage expert, writer, and editor, who has taught hundreds of published authors- including several best-sellers.

    So instead of :

    More like:

    Threads of Hope by Crista Allen

    The difference is subtle, but marked. One is skipped over, one packs power. Thanks for your suggestion though.

    Thanks to everyone who replied.
     
    Last edited: Nov 3, 2014
  14. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    My exact point was to use those words sparingly. They hardly use those words. Did you look at the actual numbers? And, those words are very likely used in interesting contexts, like the example you give in your post, not just "he smiled," "she smiled." The point is, such descriptions are not that important, period, in great writing.
     
  15. Artist369
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    Artist369 Active Member

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    Ah. I see. In my opinion, 50 smiles is way way too many, especially when modern main-stream best selling authors use them "rarely" or not at all. It gave me the opposite impression of what you were trying to say. Thanks for the clarification.
     
  16. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Again, it's not just "he smiled." And even so, they're diffused throughout 100k + words. I'm with you, though. If I could write a novel using the word "smile" only twice, and "eyes" maybe five or six times tops, I'd be ecstatic. Note, though, how seldom used the word "eyebrow" is in all three books.
     
  17. matwoolf
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    matwoolf Contributing Member Contributor

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    My list of shame:

    entirely, whilst, as, yet, verbing, framed.

    Only one incidence of furrow, and 942 eyes, 64 iris, pupil 91,

    though I have, myself - what appears to be like a Harry Potter crease, that runs vertically - not across my forehead. Not a furrow, more of a crack above my face.
     
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  18. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I'm not so concerned with using a cliched action. The only thing that bugs me is when the cliched action is wrapped in a cliched presentation. I think that's when they become the cliche.

    Take the whole he smiled, he grinned scenario - this comes up a lot on other sites especially in romances. Not only are the characters flirting using typical spicy lingo but the scene is overly familiar ( the meet cute ), and the wording is typical and without daring. By the time the familiar reactions pop up - he grinned, he smiled, his left brow raised the picky reader is feeling like they've seen it all before. And if they've read a lot they might have.

    While reading one romance, I realized that during the mc & love interests first meeting all the guy did was stand, grin, and brush a lock of hair out of the woman's eyes. Where's the suspense? Ten pages in and we know the guy is wildly attracted to the mc. Now the writer has to struggle to create a believable wedge to keep them apart for hundreds of pages. She just made her job ten times more difficult. Something more subtle would've created some mystery and room for twists.
     
  19. cutecat22
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    cutecat22 The Strange One Contributor

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    This is where people-watching helps!

    I often watch people's reactions to things and try to describe their movements and expressions in my mind. Sometimes, it helps.
     
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  20. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Points out the differences of opinion about what "rarely" means.

    Might also want to check your sources for the "modern main-stream best selling authors" information. I don't have any of the biggies on my Kindle, but I checked a few books I DO own by bestselling authors, with the following results:

    (unfortunately, my Kindle stops counting after 100, so I can't say exactly how many times the words are used)

    Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie

    smile: 100
    eye: 100
    eyebrow: 10
    mouth: 71
    grin: 50

    A Kiss for Midwinter by Courtney Milan - novella

    smile: 59
    eye: 100
    eyebrow: 14
    mouth: 17
    grin: 6

    On the Island by Tracy Garvis Graves

    smile: 81
    eye: 100
    eyebrow: 5
    mouth: 68
    grin: 10

    Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Rigg

    smile: 31
    eye: 100
    eyebrow: 6
    mouth: 40
    grin: 100

    So... I don't think the words are being avoided as much as you think they are.

    If you don't want to use them, don't use them. But lots of authors use them and get lots of sales.
     
  21. cutecat22
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    cutecat22 The Strange One Contributor

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    I know repetition and clichés can be a stumbling block for some readers but sometimes, I just can't see the problem. @BayView this is by no means directed at you but just looking from your stats above, the word smile - yes it can be replaced by different words such as grin, smirk, or even sneer but all those words mean different emotions. Besides, have you ever made a note of how many times in a day you (anyone, not you personally) actually does smile?? A hell of a lot more that the amount of times written in a book and for lots of different reasons, from smiling when you see someone you know to smiling at yourself in triumph when you trip off a kerb but manage to stay upright.

    The same could be said for eyes/eyebrows. "She raised her eyebrows in surprise ..." How else can you say that if you want to convey that her eyebrows were raised in surprise?

    There is a happy medium, I guess the problem, is finding it.
     
  22. Artist369
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    Artist369 Active Member

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    The best response I can give is to quote Margie Lawson again:

    In other words, you can use the word smile if it's in a simile or is written a fresh way. I think you misunderstand me. What she is saying is not to use the term smile as a beat. And Margie Lawson knows her stuff. She's an expert. If you are using 50 stand-alone smiles, then yes, you are writing in a stale manner. You can do that if you are a best seller, but if you aren't, you want your writing to be a cut above the rest. That means writing fresh. If my manuscript is full of speaking in hushed tones, hearts skipping a beat, blood running cold, furrowed brows, and spreading smiles, then I'm not going to stand out.
     
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  23. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    In your previous post you said "In my opinion, 50 smiles is way way too many, especially when modern main-stream best selling authors use them "rarely" or not at all."

    In this post you're acknowledging that best sellers DO use the word, but that's just because they have different rules than the rest of us. You're kind of shifting the argument, there.

    Stale writing is stale writing and should be avoided. But use of the word "smile", with or without garnishments, is not necessarily stale writing. It's just a word. If it's the right word, use it, regardless of what Margie Lawson, whoever she is, says.

    I mean, again, if you want to avoid the word, go ahead, but I worry that oversimplified advice like this gets repeated and people start believing it's a 'rule' instead of an arbitrary quirk that makes sense for some writers and not others.

    ETA: I just re-read your Margie Lawson quote, and I don't think I disagree with it - she seems to be saying not to use the word unless it adds something to your story. Which is, of course, a good rule to use for ALL words. Nothing should be there unless it adds something. I don't think 'smile' is anything special in that regard.
     
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  24. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    To be honest, Artist, I was surprised when you said you expected modern best sellers to use those words less than the books I listed. The rule of thumb is, based on the comparitjvely few times you saw those words listed in the authors I mentioned, vs the comparatively many you saw listed for those modern no name authors, is that the better writer you are, the less you need to rely on trivial facial expressions. How often tdo people really raise their eyebrow and how often do you really notice? It's a half second expression that in most cases is not worth the words needed to express them. It's not a question of , how can I convey to my reader the facial expression John is using? It's a question of such and such is happening to john, what is the best way I can utilize my finite word count to create a memorable work? Is it going to be that boring smile , or something more interesting, something te reader wouldn't normally assume , maybe even something that will make that smile implicit?
     
  25. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    To clarify - the authors I listed are all NYT best-selling authors... not quite no names.

    I think rather than "better" or "worse" writing, we're looking at questions of style.
     

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