Cara Langston


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Body language & facial expression list

bodylanguagefacialexpressionlist

If you’ve read any writing tips, you’ve no doubt heard the “Show, Don’t Tell” mantra. Why tell the reader your character is angry when you can show her hands balled up in fists and her eyebrows snapped together? It’s more descriptive and is more likely to draw the reader further into your narrative. Now, I personally think there are plenty of situations where you should do some telling, but that’s for another day and another blog post.

I struggle with writing body language. On the one hand, you’re told to keep descriptions succinct so that the reader stays immersed in the story–no purple prose, etc. On the other hand, if I kept it succinct all the time, you’d find “She smiled” and “He frowned” 2,000+ times in my manuscript. It’s definitely a balancing act. Plus, when I’m worried about describing body language, I’m not creative and thus can’t describe body language. It’s a vicious cycle.

So over the years, I’ve saved lists of body language and facial expressions in my Evernote app. Some are from novels I’ve read, some are from lists from other bloggers, some are of my own creation. This summer, I finally compiled them all into an Excel spreadsheet so I can do some filtering on body parts or positive/negative emotions. And because writers should help and support each other, I figured I’d share my work with anyone else who struggles with this.

Screenshot

Click to download XLSX file

There are 580 verbs/adjectives/descriptions, organized by:

  • Type: Breathing, Eyes, Face, Feet, Forehead, Hair, Hands, Head, Internal, Mouth, Movement, Neck/Throat, Movement, Posture, or Sound
  • Emotion: Positive, Negative, or Neutral or Both

Naturally, there’s some overlap–if you’re holding your head in your hands, does it fall into the Hands or Head category? And as far as emotion type, there are many that fall into the ‘Neutral or Both’ category; for example, a rising pulse can signal either fear (negative) or desire (positive).

It’s by no means complete. I’m sure I’ll be adding to this throughout my writing career, but hopefully it’s a good start for anyone looking for help in this area.


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How to draft a scene in 5 easy steps

 

HowtoDraftaScene

Lack of inspiration. Every writer struggles with it. If you’re like me and trying to write an 80,000+ word novel, you’ve probably struggled with it more than once.

Let’s face it–some scenes are simply easier to write than others. The ones with dramatic shouting matches are my favorite. I can sit down at my laptop and, without distractions, crank that baby out in a few hours. But out of hundreds of scenes in my book, only three involve shouting.

The most difficult part of creating a first draft is getting words on paper. Once the words are there, you can edit them to your heart’s content. But what happens when the cursor is blinking on a new page? When you have no idea how to begin?

I like to take a step-by-step approach, creating a base and then building onto it, as I’ll illustrate below.

Step 1: Add dialogue

I’ve found this to be the easiest way to put words on the page. We engage in dialogue every day. Dialogue is casual. You can write in incomplete sentences and use simple words. Don’t worry about tags yet. Just write the dialogue.

Here’s a very short scene I created with only dialogue:

“I thought you wouldn’t make it.”
“I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Don’t sound so excited.”
“Babe, I’m sorry. It’s been a crazy day at the office.”

Step 2: Identify the characters

Your reader needs to know who is speaking. This can be done through dialogue tags or adjacent character actions. As a reader myself, I’ve found the best scenes employ both types, but sparingly.

“I thought you wouldn’t make it,” Alexa said, her voice tight.
Her husband shrugged. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Don’t sound so excited.”
“Babe, I’m sorry. It’s been a crazy day at the office.”

Step 3: Describe physical actions

The next layer involves physical descriptions, beyond what you might have added in Step 2 to identify the characters. This is when I pretend my scene is being played out on film. I can see that Character A reaches out her hand. I can see that Character B frowns in displeasure. This is where the scene starts to come to life.

He tossed his laptop bag into the corner of the booth, no concern for the equipment inside.
“I thought you wouldn’t make it,” Alexa said, her voice tight. She put down her book and managed a smile.
Her husband shrugged. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Don’t sound so excited.”
He reached for her hand. “Babe, I’m sorry. It’s been a crazy day at the office.”

Step 4: Depict the setting

Now that we’ve focused on our characters, let’s step back and figure out where we are. Assuming this is a new setting, we need to add some description of the environment. This where you can start using the five senses. If our characters are in a diner, do they smell bacon? Did they see the waitress spill the coffee on her apron in the corner? Can they hear the cash register dinging? Maybe the booth is a little bit sticky from syrup, and the coffee is bitter.

 A baby shrieked from across the diner, and Alexa flipped the page of the novel she was failing to read.
He tossed his laptop bag into the corner of the booth, no concern for the equipment inside.
“I thought you wouldn’t make it,” Alexa said, her voice tight. She put down her book and managed a smile.
Her husband shrugged. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Don’t sound so excited.”
He reached for her hand. “Babe, I’m sorry. It’s been a crazy day at the office.”

*I admit to being a little lazy with the setting in this example . . .

Step 5: Narrate any internal emotions

I find this part to be the most difficult, so I often leave it for last. If you’re writing in first person or deep third person POV, your main character likely has thoughts or feelings they might want to convey to the reader. This is a great way of incorporating background info, past histories, etc.

 A baby shrieked from across the diner, and Alexa flipped the page of the novel she was failing to read. What kind of mother brought an infant into a diner at eleven o’clock at night? If it was her child, it’d be sleeping peacefully inside its crib, the one made from polished acacia, the one that cost two grand, the one that sat in the empty room upstairs.

 Jason arrived. He tossed his laptop bag into the corner of the booth, no concern for the equipment inside. Typical.

“I thought you wouldn’t make it,” Alexa said, her voice tight. She put down her book and managed a smile.

Her husband shrugged. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

“Don’t sound so excited.”

He reached for her hand. His palms were warm and rough, a reminder of the days he used to spend in the field. “Babe, I’m sorry. It’s been a crazy day at the office.”

Now, I wouldn’t call that great writing by any means, but at least it’s a starting point. The scene began with four lines of generic dialogue and has grown to become an introduction into a childless married couple who, for some reason, are meeting at a diner late at night.

From here it can be culled or fleshed out.

From here–hopefully–your writing muse will find you again.

At least . . . this is what I do.


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My ever-evolving characters

The majority of my colleagues were away at a conference earlier this week, so I took advantage of the quiet time at work and finally picked up my WIP again. It was tough, but I managed to write about 1,000 more words, just barely surpassing the 21,000 word mark. And then it happened: The first major snag appeared.

I have a detailed outline of where The Glassmaker’s Wife is heading. I’ve developed the backgrounds of all my character. I can tell you when they were born, their views toward Prohibition, their happy or terrible childhoods, and way more. The story was coming together so perfectly! But it just had to come crashing down when I realized that my main character’s actions made no sense with the history I gave her. I sat at my desk whispering profanities under my breath as I panicked, battling with myself on how to resolve the problem:

“It can work,” I reassured myself. “I don’t want to re-write all this shit.”

“No, it can’t work. Eva is a complete idiot if she falls for this man after everything that happened to her. You don’t want your readers thinking that in the first 20% of the novel. Something needs to change.”

“Fine, but I can’t change what Henry does. It’s vital to the plot.”

“Then you have to change Eva’s childhood history.”

And that’s what I did. It wasn’t fun. I had to find a new background for her. Now she has a new sibling, and her parents are completely different than what I originally wrote. I had to cut out a scene and a character that I loved. I changed the way she met her husband, which changes how she interacts with her husband going forward. To be honest, I’m still not 100% sure if this is going to work. But I am glad that I discovered this problem at 20,000 words rather than 100,000 words.

So that’s my lesson for today: You may want to be a plotter, but your characters will grow lives of their own and screw everything up.

P.S. I don’t usually have conversations with myself . . .