Dressing up Descriptions: Harness the Power of “Smile”
I want you to picture the face of a character who is familiar to you. It can be one of your own making or have sprung from the imagination of another. Now, make that character smile. Sounds pretty simple, right? After all, everybody smiles (at least, I hope you do!) so it can’t be that hard to visualize.
But think about this:
Do you see teeth, or are the lips closed?
Is the mouth symmetrical?
Does the smile reach the all the way to the eyes?
How wide of a smile is it?
Are there dimples? Wrinkles?
Can you tell if this person smiles often, or is this a rare occurrence?
The OWS team has been bringing tons of wonderful insights and resources to help you create characters. But knowing that character as the author is very different from getting to know them as a reader. Human communication and expression is oftentimes both subtle and complex. A generic word such as “smile” isn’t going to convey the real flavor of someone’s reaction without some help. So, let’s break down this act that is both so simple and so complicated at the same time.
Other Words for “Smile” AKA Tell it like it is
A simple fix for the overuse and underutilization of your character’s smile is to use synonyms. They each carry different connotations, so they can convey meaning without going into all the details. Here are a few ideas, which are roughly grouped by wideness of the smile.
A small smile, lips closed, often only one corner of the mouth rises. People who are trying to hide their smile may be able to keep it to a smirk. Or, it could be a habitual gesture of someone who isn’t very outwardly expressive.
A smile (or other action) that is affectedly coy or coquettish. The object of a simper is to ingratiate oneself to another. But the receiver of this type of smile may not realize they are being manipulated. Lips may be together or parted. A small child who smiles at a parent and uses a sweet voice when they are asking for a cookie is simpering.
You probably know dimples as the little pits some people get in their cheeks or chins when they smile, but did you know it is also a verb? Some people dimple easily, while others don’t dimple at all. A very lucky few have permanent dimples even when their face is at rest. Generally speaking, though, a smile that causes dimples has to be pretty wide. Dimples are caused by the shifting muscles of the face and they often must be shifted fairly significantly to create this effect. This is a little bit of a cheat, but it is a nice way to break up the monotony of using “smile.”
If a smile is accompanied by ogling or other overtly flirtatious behavior such as licking one’s lips, then you’ve got yourself a leer. This expression conveys not only the smiler’s pleasure, but their desire. Leering is often done in order to make someone uncomfortable rather than actually being used as a tool to seduce. On the other hand, a White Chapel ‘lady of the night’ may take great pleasure when a potential customer leers at her. For her, it means she’s going to eat that day.
Personally, I think of a grin as a wider smile than a beam, but the two are pretty similar. The main difference is that element of pride or satisfaction, which would be conveyed by the actions of the rest of the face and body. A grin is more generic and can be used in more situations. An especially large grin is often said to “go from ear to ear.”
Add an Adjective or Adverb
Another simple approach is to choose an adjective to modify the smile. A person may smile because they are amused, pleased, relieved, ecstatic, embarrassed. They could simply be pretending to be any of these things. If someone casually asks us how we are, we most often smile by reflex before we respond. Or if the jerk who broke your heart is over at the next table, and even if you are dying inside, you may find yourself smiling in the hopes they will look over and take it as a sign that you are already over them.
Adding a few choice adjectives can help convey the subtle meanings behind the expression.
If someone “smiles hopefully,” that is saying that their brows are lifted and their eyes are wide without spelling it out. Showing is going to be better than telling the majority of the time, but their are certainly occasions when you want the emotional or physical action to move the story along at a fast pace. Stopping to describe a hopeful expression in detail could ruin the flow of the action.
How do you Show a Smile?
If you don’t want to come right out and use the word “smile” or any of its synonyms and the situation calls for more detailed description, you can also focus on what the action looks like. Phrases such as “the corners of her mouth crept skyward” or “his lips parted” both specifically reference the mouth and make your reader picture a smile without resorting to the word. In my own writing, I often employ phrases such as “her mouth took on a sardonic tilt” or “amusement ghosted across her lips” to add interest. It’s fun to experiment with the level of complexity, and choosing the moments you use more flowery prose to describe a simple action can also add voice and characterization to your story.
But even if you describe the mouth, you’re still only showing half the picture.
In fact, it’s probably more like 1/8th of the picture because we use our whole faces to emote, not just our mouths. The jaw, eyes, forehead, and brows can all contribute to the particular flavor of facial expression, and serve as a way to vary how you show the amusement or other specific emotion. For instance, a person whose eyes are twinkling would never be frowning; the two actions are mutually exclusive. You could say “his joy split his face in two” as a stand in for “grin from ear to ear.” Or try something like “her laugh lines deepened as relief washed over her” in order to bring in more of the face.
And then there’s the rest of the body to consider. The slant of one’s shoulders, the tilt of the head, the solidity of the stance—these are just a few of the other pieces of the puzzle.
You can also often piggyback off of your verb choice to suggest a smile rather than explicitly state anything in detail. If someone is moving in a jaunty way, they more than likely happy, which means they are more than likely smiling. I have a character who is often giggling or tittering, so mentioning her smile would be redundant because you can’t frown and laugh at the same time.
Use your Smiles Wisely
One of the questions I asked while you were picturing your character’s smile was about the frequency of the action. On one hand, this has to do with offering variety to your reader because if everyone is just smiling all the time you are wasting your action tag. On the other hand, you can do a lot of characterization by carefully choosing when and how your character smiles.
For example, I have a main character named Vi. Most of the time, if she smiles it is a smirk because she has real sarcastic and cynical streak that both limits how often she feels happy and makes her reluctant to be sincere. I also decided early on that she is the only one who actually gets that word applied to the expression. Sure, someone else might smirk, but I employ a more show-oriented way to do it. Only once so far has she shown another character her unguarded, lop-sided grin, and this only happened when she was taken by surprise. This break in her pattern signals to the reader that something important has just occurred.
Stand in front of the mirror and try out some different magnitudes of smiles. If this makes you feel awkward, listen to a funny podcast or stand-up routine while you do it. This can help you smile naturally and in varying degrees without over-thinking it. Pay attention to the way the smile feels, and how all of the different parts of the face are affected.