Tuesday, June 3, 2014

A Smile Played on His Lips and He Spoke in a Deep Baritone: Some Thoughts on Writing Vocal Tones and Facial Expressions

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Of the many things I learned from Deb Dixon's "Goal, Motivation, Conflict" workshop, this quote stuck with me the most:

"You can do anything in writing, as long as you do it well."
One thing I struggle with is describing how characters sound and their facial expressions. I think this area is one a lot of us have trouble with. If I had a nickel for every time one of my critique partners said, "But how does (s)he sound when they say this?" and "What does his/her face look like right now?" I'd have enough money to buy a year's supply of chocolate. But how often DO we need to describe facial expressions and tone of voice?

My conclusion: Not as much as you think.

As a critiquer myself, I notice wording and flow in a piece of writing more so than plots and character arcs and all that. More often than not, I see writers overusing things, whether it's adverbs, passive voice, repetitive words, and yes, tone of voice and facial expressions.

Let's see if I can show you what I mean with part of an impromptu flash fiction piece I wrote for Rebecca Postupak's "Flash Friday", not that this is a literary masterpiece in any shape or form, but here's what I might do if I was TOO mindful of tone and expression :

Lana slid the crisp paper across the patio table. “Sign these,” she barked.

“Why?” Joe whispered. His lips pursed as he stared down at the obnoxious logo: Burger, Smythe, and Villay, attorneys-at-law. 
Her eyes became narrow slits and her voice sounded like two pots banging together. “All you want is your garden and your bush mistress.” 
This is a short little snippet of dialogue, and I don't know about you, but those underlined parts really slow the pace for me. This couple is on the verge of divorce. The tension should move this along at a snappier pace. Take a look at how I really wrote it:

Lana slid the crisp paper across the patio table. “Just sign them.” 
“You don’t want this.” Joe stared down at the obnoxious logo: Burger, Smythe, and Villay, attorneys-at-law. 
“Why not? You left me a long time ago. All you want is that garden of yours and that silly bush of a mistress.”
Here we see no tone of voice and no facial expressions. What we do see is a different choice of wording to make the dialogue itself show us what these two might sound and look like as this little exchange is happening. In hindsight I think I could have also used stronger verbs to narrate their actions as well. Instead of "slid", Lana might have "shoved" the papers toward him. Joe might have "glared" down at the logo and perhaps crumpled one side of the documents in his fist. 

Put your readers
in the game!
Readers will notice ANYTHING we use too often, so do your best to show what the characters look like and sound like by using strong, appropriate dialogue and action that fits the tone of the scene. Describe the tone of voice and facial expressions in moderation and also if they are important to what's happening. For instance, if a character is lying, the tone of voice and facial expression could be tells that give them away.

Remember that the reason we read books as opposed to watching movies is so our imagination can join in and form the story in our own minds. If we feed the reader every single minute detail about how WE see the scene, their imaginations just sit there in the dugout and never get a chance to play.

For learning how to write tone of voice and facial expressions in fresh and new ways, I highly recommend Margie Lawson's workshop or lecture notes on Writing Body Language & Dialogue Cues. She refers to some really good examples and includes some unique exercises to keep your descriptions from being blah and cliche.

Now go forth and write! ~Mysti


  1. Yay! Thank you for this. When I saw the title of your post, I knew I would be in trouble because I SUCK at facial expressions and tone of voice. You made me feel a whole lot better.

  2. You captured it with the second version, Mysti - I think there is a lot of power in the the space between the notes.

  3. I'm always told that I write excellent dialogue, but need more body language. I contend that the choice of words in the dialogue can often be enough. Thanks for this!

  4. I need some motivation. This was a great post, thanks.

  5. Thanks Mysti. This is what I needed to hear write now. I shared it in the Hemingway Hall group at WVU. Great stuff! Marli


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