What a writer can’t do–a ramble post

It’s annoying to me that I cannot capture facial expressions and body expressions for characters the way that I want to. Film does that. To do so as a writer the way I want to would be distracting and annoying, even if I could catch the nuances the way I want to.

I was just watching “Catch and Release,” a Jennifer Garner flick that I have no intention of reviewing here, except in two scenes that I found magical. At one point, she finds herself kissing a guy she didn’t really plan to and when she realizes it, she stops. There are no words between them. But the hand language. A twisting of the fingers, a push in the air, a flick of dismissal, a curling of embarrassment and pain–so expressive. And then later, as they talk, the same sort of body language between the characters. This time not just the hands, but the bodies and the faces. His face is expressive too (forget his name–Oliphant maybe?) and it’s the flicker of emotion, the mobility of expression, between the two that communicates so silently and compactly a wealth of things.

I can’t do that. Pictures paint a thousand words. Course words also paint a thousand pictures and I like working in the medium of words, but sometimes I wish I could show exactly what I want in the descriptions of the faces and body language, but I can’t seem to quite get there.

In fiction, however, this is the part that the reader brings to the page–the imagining of the world, of the people, seeing things in their mind’s eye and seeing the expressions–pain, regret, hope, guilt, contentment–all the possible emotions and the combinations of them (often conflicting and wrenching) that make a person so very human.

Then too, I know–I know–that readers don’t like to be told too much, to have everything explained in perfect detail. They want the writer to let them fill in the details and feel connected to the world and characters. To let them have some ownership of what they are reading. The balance is difficult and hard to find sometimes, and I’m not sure right this moment how you judge whether you’ve succeeded except on gut feeling.

This is rambling, I know, but I suppose my point, if there has to be a point, is that when a writer captures a nuance of expression, of body language, admire it. It’s harder than it looks. Do you want to point to anybody you think does it especially well?

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  1. 1. Karen Wester Newton

    It seems to me that your post points out the differences between film and books/stories. Books form a connection between (generally) two people: the writer and the reader. Arguably, the editor plays some role, but it’s usually invisible. A film is the work of many people: the screenwriter, the director, the cinematographer, the editor (a film editor’s role is MUCH larger than a book editor’s role), and the actors. You could include the producer in that list, but I didn’t because it seems to me his/her artistic intervention is less (although I admit I don’t understand what they do except for handling money and logistics).

    Yes, a good actor can convey a lot in a simple scene. But I always wonder how much is the actor and how much is the director. Some actors seem good no matter who directs while others need a certain kind of director. And the overall flow of the movie is heavily dependent on good film editing.

    I love movies, but if I could only have one or the other, it would be books, because I (almost) always feel the connection to the characters more strongly when it’s just me and the words on the page.

  2. 2. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    I’d choose books over movies also. I like sinking down in the world and really being intimate with the characters and situations, which doesn’t happen as much or as deeply with movies. But still I wish I could capture more facial expressions . . . .

  3. 3. Sherri

    I have said and thought the same thoughts. There are only so many words you can use to describe a smile without roaming into the lyrical or downright silly. There are a limited number of ways to convey a nuance of body language so easily understood when seen, but nearly opaque when described.

    I don’t really have a preference between books and movies because in my weird head I translate what I see into words and what I read into pictures and sounds (and smells and everything else). Movies can’t convey the depths of what a character is really thinking, or build a deep and complex world like a book can, and a book can’t quite give the incredible and certain details of a movie. I guess that’s why there is room for both (and why books translated to movies are such a strange beast — there are those where I liked the movie better than the book and others where I didn’t know why they wasted the time).

  4. 4. Mitch Wagner

    The actor in “Catch and Release” is Timothy Olyphant, who played the sheriff in the wonderful “Deadwood.”

    I’m a stone Kevin Smith fan so I lived “Catch and Release,” but thought the rest of the movie was “meh.”

  5. 5. chrisweuve

    1) A picture is worth a thousand words — but try saying that with a picture.

    2) There are some limitations in the printed word — but I think there are some tremendous advantages there as well. I am reminded of a scene in Heinlein’s _Starship Troopers_, where Heinlein is trying to get across the importance of a particular person: “Colonel Neilsen has a permanent rank of Fleet General (yes, *that* Neilsen)…” In three words Heinlein said more than he could have with a page of text, or any picture.

Author Information

Diana Pharaoh Francis

Diana Pharaoh Francis has written the fantasy novel trilogy that includes Path of Fate, Path of Honor and Path of Blood. Path of Fate was nominated for the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award. Recently released was The Turning Tide, third in her Crosspointe Chronicles series (look also for The Cipher and The Black Ship). In October 2009, look for Bitter Night, a contemporary fantasy. Diana teaches in the English Department at the University of Montana Western, and is an avid lover of all things chocolate. Visit site.

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