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Body Language: Facial Expressions

There are myriad muscles that control the brow, chin, eyes, jaw, nose, and mouth. Some people can wiggle their ears. Different cultures utilize different expressions. Looking away may be deceptive in America, but indicative of respect in Japan. The important part when revising for body language is to note when and how you relate facial expressions and to avoid repetition and purple prose. One should not wriggle one's eyebrows while leering.

A character cannot control fleeting micro-expressions, the initial emotional response, but he quickly recovers from them. Facial expressions reflect our feelings about what is done and said, sometimes more eloquently or more obviously than we intend. Someone told me that there were only two true emotions: fear and love (or pleasure and pain). All other expressions stem from those two. The micro-expression field of study acknowledges seven. Love isn't one of them.

Unless the character is a professional interrogator, he is not going to hook Dick up to a lie detector, register his body heat and pulse, or measure the dilation of his pupils. There are, however, emotional triggers and signs that humans register in the space of a second. Most of your characters aren’t trained to recognize them. There are several personality types that pick up on nonverbal cues exceptionally well. If you want your detective to be a natural lie detector, pick one of them.

If you pay attention to what is happening in the body when a heightened emotion is experienced, you can make your characters believable. Highlight the places in your manuscript where you discuss emotions. Take a careful look at the choreography and word choices.

Anger: The jaw clenches. The lips thin and lift in a snarl. The nostrils flare. The eyebrows draw together. Aggression is a response to fear or a response to boundary violations. When Dick is angry, he may puff himself up to appear larger and stare his opponent into submission. His brow furrows. His blood pressure rises. The stress triggers a neurochemical cocktail in response to the fight or flight instinct. He flushes and clenches his fists. His sweat glands kick in. His muscles are primed to strike. He may shake his fist or point his finger. He may drift forward slightly, or step forward deliberately, depending on how much of a threat the opponent represents. His tone either lowers in warning or rises, depending on the circumstances. His anger may continue to simmer after the altercation. He usually vents to other people or indulges in a physical action to release it.

Anger can be expressed passively. After the initial response of jaw, nose, and lips, Jane may turn silent and look away. She may mutter under her breath or fake smile. She has the same physiological response, but her conscious instinct is to hide it. Passive people who are angry often cry when furious. As her throat closes and her blood boils, she becomes incoherent. She goes into wait and watch mode. Her anger simmers but she holds onto it. She is more likely to gossip and indirectly sabotage the person she is angry with. Temperament plays a role in how anger is expressed.

Contempt: A corner of the lip tightens and lifts. Contempt is in response to an intellectual boundary violation. Dick may make scornful or sarcastic comments. He may consciously override his initial response in an attempt to hide his disdain. He could state his true feelings in the matter. Contempt is in response to something or someone he does not believe, agree with, or like. He may deny his contempt, but his face betrays him.

Disgust: The nostrils clench and upper lip lifts. Dick may frown and pull back. He may flinch or purse his lips. He may utter exclamations of disgust in response. His heart rate slows. Disgust is in response to something he fears or abhors at gut level. His body retracts. He may put out his hand or wave someone away.

Fear: The upper lids and eyebrows lift. The lips stretch wide and pupils dilate. Fear is in response to a physical or emotional violation. Dick can react with mild fear or outright terror, depending on the stimulus. His response is instantaneous and involuntary. Dick's senses go on high alert. His fight or flight response is triggered. He either freezes or retracts. He may gasp. His muscles prepare to escape or avoid. He sweats. He shivers. The hair shafts stiffen. His pulse rate increases. He may go into shock, depending on the stimulus. His flesh may feel cold as the blood rushes to prime the muscles in his hands and legs and fuels the brain. He may step back or turn to run. He may cover his face and head with his arms. The rush of neurochemicals leaves him feeling shaky after the stimulus is dealt with.

Happiness: The corners of the lips lift, the teeth may show. The cheeks plump. The muscles around the eyes are engaged and wrinkles appear. The eyes may widen, or narrow if the nose wrinkles. Jane's posture relaxes and expands. She moves toward someone or something. Her body language is expansive. Neurochemicals induce a high. She may laugh. She is verbal and inclined to touch. She may be mildly delighted or completely overjoyed. Her focus may broaden to take in others. She wants to share her feeling.

Sadness: Pupils narrow. Upper eyelids droop. Corners of lips turn down. Sadness is a response to loss or hurt feelings. Jane's body language closes in protectively. She may cross her arms, lower her head, or turn away. She may grow quiet and have trouble speaking. Her throat feels constricted. Her eyes and nose prickle and water. Her chest feels heavy. She may become more aware of her pulse and breathing. A strong stimulus can feel like a blow to the viscera. She may gasp, cover her abdomen, or bend over. She may transition to shock. Sadness may be followed quickly by anger. With extreme grief, she may scream or yell. Her body may crumple to the floor. She holds herself and rocks back and forth. Crying can be soft and silent or guttural and loud. It can pass quickly or go on for minutes. The initial blast may be followed by softer gushes as Jane calms down.

Surprise: The eyebrows lift and eyes open wide. The forehead furrows. Surprise can be a response to something positive, negative, or neutral. Jane can have a quick startle or a longer shock wave. The reaction can be followed immediately by fear, joy, or confusion. Depending on the stimulus, the jaw drops. Surprise is usually quick and over, but the stimulus sometimes makes Jane ruminate on it for some time. She may share her surprise with others in an attempt to understand it.

Next time, we will take a look at gestures.

Body Language: How close is too close?

Cuddling, kissing, and hugging are often signs of affection. They could be signs of aggression if the character receiving the affection doesn't want it.

There are situations in which a character must control involuntary responses, especially if Dick is a spy, a cop, or pretending to be someone he isn’t. If faced with an angry mugger or screaming toddler, Dick's initial primordial response might be recoil. His body might tense to strike. If it is a mugger, he lets the punch fly, unless the mugger is holding a gun pointed at his head. If it is a toddler, Dick overrides the urge to strike and deals with it another way, unless he has poor self-control or the child is demon-possessed.

Every character has a different idea of how close is close enough when speaking to other people. We call it personal space. It's uncomfortable when someone stands too close. It is crossing a psychological boundary.

Some characters are touchy-feely types. An extrovert is more likely to be a hands-on kind of guy. An introvert hates being touched by people he doesn't know very well. A character who has been abused may not want anyone to touch him, no matter the reason, loving or otherwise.

Some families and cultures are big on physical displays of affection, others aren't. A character might hug every one he has ever met upon seeing them again. Others prefer a handshake or a bow. The reasons can be personality, culture, or life experience.

Touch denotes a degree of intimacy. Someone touching Dick's shoulder could mean multiple things: desire, anger, or compassion. Little kids touch more than adults. A toddler is not self-conscious about where his hands land or where his head rests. The elderly can crave touch as much as toddlers. It may be decades since someone has hugged them or held their hand.

Jane might not mind being touched by a lover or best friend. She might object to being handled by a stranger at a party. Friends and family touch Jane to greet her, tease her, get her attention, help her, or hinder her. How comfortable she is with them makes a difference in how well she tolerates it.

Jane may normally love being touched by her husband until she is angry with him. How your character feels affects how she processes the touch and the person touching her.

There are times when someone we don't know very well needs to touch us: massage therapists, hairdressers, doctors, nurses, medical personnel, rescue personnel, etc. A teacher may have to touch a child to direct him. A guard may have to touch Jane to direct her. It may make the character very uncomfortable. Children involved in sports are used to being tackled, patted, or punched by teammates. Others aren't.

Characters that are deceptive, don't like themselves, or are ashamed of something may avoid touch. They are uncomfortable when someone approaches them, pats them on the back, or moves in for a hug. Pedophiles touch inappropriately.

When a person touches Jane and it feels off, it sends a frisson of alarm through her system. Depending on the circumstances, Jane may subconsciously recoil, but consciously blow it off and make excuses for it. However, her subconscious remains on high alert until the danger has passed.

When describing touch in your fiction, make sure it is appropriate for the circumstances.

Make sure you tell the reader how the character feels about being touched. Is it a good thing or a bad thing?

What kind of caress, hug, or handshake was it?

Is Jane’s instinctive response to pull away when she knows she has to endure the hug?

These small conflicts illustrate character, reveal relationships, and make characters very uncomfortable at scene level.

Touch ignites an involuntary response, followed by a voluntary response, followed by a recovery. Illustrate the beats during critical encounters. The how and why are important. Was the touch appropriate or inappropriate? Tolerated or defended? Welcome or unwelcome?

Next we will discuss facial expressions.

Reaction Beats

When a stimulus signals the brain, the body goes through a logical sequence. Make sure you relate the beats in a logical order.

1. A stimulus triggers the senses. The brain receives the stimulus instantaneously. It can be something your character hears, intuits, sees, smells, tastes, or touches.

2. The body has an involuntary response that takes a nanosecond. The limbic system evaluates the stimulus and sends chemicals racing through the body as neurons fire, depending on its evaluation of whether the stimulus is negative, positive, or neutral. The brain decides if there is a potential threat or reward.

3. The response triggers a reflexive action.

4. The brain then regains control over the body and makes a conscious decision about how to proceed.

A posited theory is that everyone we meet (and everything we come across) leaves a neural imprint. The brain decides if a person, place, or thing is a friend or foe and whether the next encounter will be negative or positive. The composite images are stored in an easily accessed file folder for comparison. How much a person or thing resembles the positive or negative composites determines how likely you are to like or dislike a new person, place, or thing when you encounter it. It decides whether snakes are lovely or lethal, whether a physical action is comforting or threatening, and whether an action you take is likely to result in reward or punishment.

It compares faces and decides that your new boss looks a lot like the girl you liked in elementary school. Your initial reaction is positive. She may turn out to be perfectly awful.

The brain makes these split-second decisions every second of every day. It is important to understand this process as you write, but it's only necessary to zero in on this part of the response at the most critical turning points of your story.

Next, the body reacts involuntarily to the stimulus. It recoils or reaches out. It startles or is soothed. A character gasps, coughs, sneezes, laughs, or screams. This reaction is embedded deep within the animal part of the brain. It is governed by sheer instinct and raw emotion. It is the fight or flight response at play. His pulse, breathing, and muscles react. His skin erupts in chills. His mouth goes dry. The character is not speaking or moving yet. He flinches, blinks, tenses, and displays a micro-expression.

What happens next depends on how the brain filters the stimulus through the character's conditioning, personality, and emotional connection to the stimulus. It tests the emotion of the moment. The brain decides to override or reinforce the initial involuntary response. If the stimulus is a threat from a comforting person, it causes dissonance. The same is true if the loving gesture is issued from a threatening stimulus. Dick's impulse may be to hug someone. It is awkward when that someone pulls away from it.

Finally, the character's conscious mind takes over and is free to decide which course of action to take next. The body recovers from the initial reflex. It overcomes the muscle memory and moves with intention. Conscious control over his breathing, pulse, and muscles is restored. Dick moves deliberately forward or backward and speaks. He alters his breathing, flexes his trembling knees, or relaxes his tightened gut and jaw. He smiles and shakes hands or fake smiles and avoids shaking hands.

If Dick has been startled, shocked, or wounded, his body recovers. Writers often forget to mention this step of the process. His system returns to normal once the threat has passed. Make sure you show the recovery after a major impact.

Not every encounter needs to reveal every beat. Use more beats when the tension is high, less when the tension is low. Use extreme actions and reactions sparingly. The verbal camera should zoom in on the mechanics during critical parts and zoom out for the noncritical parts.

Next time we will discuss distance and touching. How close is too close?

Revising Body Language

When the first draft is done, and you have thrown in all those placemarker words, read it through one passage at a time.

Underline every incidence of body language.

Then pull back and read through the chapter a second time.

Every scene should have a setup, a conflict, and a resolution that leads to a new conflict. You should have three or four key turning points in the overall story. They need the camera to slow down and take in the exquisite detail. Mark those level 1.

There will be three or four minor turning points. They deserve some attention. Mark those level 2.

There will be lighter moments that require little detail. Mark those level 3.

The rest are subtler conflicts that require the barest attention to detail. Mark those level 4.

The more heated the scene, the more important your actions and reactions are.

After you have identified the heat level of your scenes, highlight the critical encounter in each scene. 

Choose the sections you want to highlight judiciously and keep the verbal camera zooming in and out. Give your reader a satisfying ride. Don't stay focused for too long in any one spot. Don't zoom in on unessential details. When the details are important, spend more time describing the actions and reactions. When they are less important, use fewer words.

When you have action and reaction in a scene, examine it carefully. What should you add, keep, or cut? 

Have your characters used a body movement more than once? It is okay to portray a character with a specific tic, such as scratching his cheek when stressed, but you should not have him do it in every chapter. Reserve it for key scenes when it is important for him to be especially stressed. 

How many times have they smiled, grimaced, laughed, frowned, cried, pouted? Cut out repetition. Ask yourself if their reaction is important at that moment. Sometimes we put too many reactions in. Less is more. 

At any given moment, characters do multiple things. They think, feel, move, and/or speak. Each item brings something slightly different to the picture. Jane may feel angry, but force herself to speak calmly. Dick may play checkers with his child while worrying about work the next day or listening to a conversation Jane is having in the next room. 

At key points, the body language may not support what is being discussed. Use this judiciously. We will talk more about specific body movements later in this series. 

Next week we will look at the specific beats of action and reaction.