Writers must write emotion. That's a given. But many writers lean too heavily on stock emotional body language when they describe their characters: the wink, the nod, the yawn, the shrug and that American favorite, the smile.
North Americans smile more than people from other cultures. And we don't just smile (way) more, we smile bigger and brighter. Scroll through a brief comparison of photos of American vs. Chinese leaders and you'll see it, too.
As an editor, I don't go more than five pages without spotting it in first drafts for longer pieces and there's a rare Flash piece without at least someone smiling by line four. From the first grin in a draft, it's everywhere, way too much of it. For many writers it is a crutch whose sell-by-date has expired.
So short of moving to Russia or Japan and imbuing a whole new body language vocabulary, what's a writer to do? The fact is that human beings do convey genuine emotions and it's our job to get them down on the page in such a compelling manner that our readers won't want to put down our writing.
One solution is to ramp up our use of internal description. If your first instinct is to write that your character smiles, ask yourself how the character feels at this moment. Did her heart speed up? Does she have to stop herself from flinging her arms into the air, jumping up and down, singing, cheering, or strutting around the room?
A second solution is to combine your smiles with other powerful literary devices such as pace and imagery. Is it a quick smile? A slow burst of delight? A smile so cold that it might as well be frozen onto her face? What about the shape? Is it such a big symmetrical smile the reader can only conclude that it's fake?
A third solution is to take your smiles a lot more seriously. Some researchers say there are as many as fifty different types of smiles and a wide variety of cultural interpretations (A smiling face might appear confident to an American, idiotic to a Russian and embarrassed to a Chinese person).
Fifty options require weighty consideration. The superficial, "she smiled at him" is well, superficial. As a reader there's not a lot of connection to your character—a big mistake. Readers will likely skim those words, so why write them?
Consider the smug, tight-lipped, open mouthed, flirtatious, and half smile. Open-mouthed smiles, by the way, are almost always fake, at least in adults. Few adults are really feeling that carefree, so take note of what signals you wish to give the reader when you use those.
Stop writing for a moment and physically smile in these various ways yourself and tune into the emotion you're feeling at the same time. When you keep your lips together and smile, are you feeling tense? Arrogant? Flirty? What about pressing the lips together? Do your neck muscles tighten? Do your shoulders meet your ears? Channel all of that genuine description into your writing.
Then there's the classic "liar's smile." Smiling can be an automatic and very much unwanted response to internal tension for many people. One reason for internal tension is that the person is lying or embarrassed. How does your character feel now? Dry mouth? A return of that childhood twitch? Does she desperately need to scratch her nose, stick her head in her purse, or run her hands through her hair?
So don't ditch the smile altogether (although seriously consider cutting them down if you're a serial smile writer). Instead, broaden, stretch, and shrink how your portray smiles, to breathe true life into your characters, and anchor them in genuine emotion.
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