Writers in the Storm

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May 29, 2014

Margie's Rule # 2: Write the Hard Stuff -- Facial Expressions

From CBS.com

From CBS.com

by Margie Lawson, @MargieLawson

If you watch NCIS, you know Jethro Gibbs, aka Mark Harmon, has rules. Fifty-plus rules. My next fifteen (or fifty) blogs will feature a different Margie-Rule for writers.

[Click here for Margie's Rule #1:
Never Take Any Word for Granted

Margie’s Rule #2: Write the Hard Stuff: Facial Expressions

Write the hard stuff.

Those words sound harsh. Nobody wants to write the hard stuff. And writing fresh facial expressions is tough.

It’s easy to write a sigh. It’s easy to write a nod. It’s easy to have a character shake their head.

It’s easy to write eyebrows raising, lifting, lowering, wagging.

It’s easy to write eyes narrowing, widening, slitting, squinting, winking, rolling.

It’s not easy to write fresh facial expressions.

You may be thinking, why write fresh? What’s wrong with writing overused facial expressions? Everybody writes them.

Lots of writers use those overused phrases. Readers have read those phrases thousands of times.

But clichés are invitations to skim. The reader detaches from the read. They take a mini-break. They tune out of your story and tune into their real word.

For many agents and editors, clichés aren’t just invitations to skim. They stop reading.

I’m not the only writing expert who wants to kill most clichés. Every basic how-to book for writers cautions against using clichés. I’ll share ideas from several How-to-Write books.

Here’s what James V. Smith, Jr. said about clichés in YOU CAN WRITE A NOVEL. This is from his “YOU MIGHT BE AN AMATEUR IF” section.

 You might be an amateur if you rely on clichés.

This item is obligatory for any writing handbook. Beware the automatic phrase, such as “white as snow” and “quiet as a mouse.” If your heroic character roars like a lion, she’d better be a lioness. 

One of the books on my top ten how-to books for beginning writers is THE FIRST FIVE PAGES by Noah Lukeman. He has sixteen pages listed in the index that address something about clichés. He includes this caution in chapter one:

I can’t tell you how many manuscripts either open with clichés or have one on their first page. This is almost always a sure indicator of a commonplace sensibility and will thus lead to instant rejection.

Trust the writing experts. Avoid clichés. Push yourself to write fresh. 

All the examples in this blog are from Margie-grads. Enjoy!

Blaze, Joan Swan, multi-Margie-grad, 3 time Immersion-grad

For an extended second his eyes remained steady and unblinking on her face. A deep vertical line pulled between his brows, as if someone had smacked him upside the head and he hadn’t quite recovered.

When she looked up, Owen’s expression held a mixture of decades-old emotions that stirred her heart and her libido.

Dirty Magic, Jaye Wells, multi-Margie-grad, 2 time Immersion-grad

Gardner’s expression went tense, like she’d hoped I would have forgotten about that. When he finally looked up, his eyes were shiny and red-rimmed.

His smile transformed his face from boyish to almost-mannish.

Sweet on You, Laura Drake, to be released August, 2014, multi-Margie-grad, Immersion-grad

Margie Lawson, Laura Drake

Margie Lawson and Laura Drake ~ RWA Nationals 2013

Her expression in the mirror looked familiar for the first time in weeks. She looked like a soldier; determined, tough, and ready.

The Cam in front of the cameras looked so different than the Cam she was getting to know. His face was closed, carefully composed. A Cool Hand Cahill mask.

Her lips attempted a smile, but her eyes didn’t bother.

Two Paragraphs:

He opened his eyes and studied her face. Her lips taut, her eyes cool, shuttered, and professional. And that hurt. “Will you have dinner with me tonight?”

Her look lasered to a hawk’s predatory gaze. No cool there now.

Dare You To, Katie McGarry, multi-Margie-Grad 

Beth’s face explodes into this radiant smile and her blue eyes shine like the sun. My insides melt. This moment is special and I don’t want to let it go. I’m the one that put that look there.

From over his shoulder, Dad indicates I should join them by giving me one of his rare I’m-proud-of-you smiles. It makes me unbalanced.

Mom shifts in her seat like a crow fluffing out its wings. The only thing she’s missing is the pissed-off caw.

Find Me, Romily Bernard, Golden Heart Winner, and multi-Margie-grad

“That’s good. That’s good.” Bren’s nodding hard enough to knock something loose.

Everyone else is talking and crying, but Tally’s motionless, staring at me like I’m the only person who has ever mattered. Like I’m a hero.

The Last Breath (MIRA), Kimberly Belle, to be released Sept. 30, 2014, multi-Margie-grad, 4-time Immersion-grad

A smile slides up Jake’s face and settles in. It’s a magnetic, no-holds-barred smile, a smile that’s fierce and undeniably sexy, a smile that tugs and tingles somewhere deep and low in my belly.

Now Cal doesn’t bother hiding his surprise, or his fury. His neutral expression mushrooms into something livid and then clenches. Slammed brows, squeezed lips.

The realization slams him back onto his seat and sobers his expression more thoroughly than ten double espressos.

I watch as every emotion I feared most competes on Jake’s face. Grief, disgust, hatred, despair.

Kennedy Ryan, When You Are Mine, to be released June 17, 2014, multi-Margie-grad, Immersion-grad

Kerris’s smile played tug-of-war with her sad eyes.

The smile Kerris pushed onto her lips felt like a too-tight sweater.

Walsh flashed a smile he’d been cultivating in expensive schools and exclusive parties since he was twelve years old, hoping no one was the wiser.

Two Paragraphs:

“Walsh,” his mother said from the head of the table a few feet north of him and Sofie. “Will you open the dancing with me?”

Walsh lobbed a silent yes-get-me-out-of-this expression to his mother. She returned with a mama-always-knows smile.

I’m so impressed with my Margie-grads. Stellar writing!

If you some of these examples grabbed you, tweet or Fb the authors, and post a comment below. They’ll all stop by the blog. Let them know they wowed you!

One more point about clichés. Reviewers notice clichés too.

I’ll share the last sentences from two reviews. They’re for different books, by different authors. One is from Publisher’s Weekly, one is from Kirkus.

The last sentence from one review:

Clichés roll past like tumbleweeds on the prairie.

The last sentence from the other review:

(Author’s name) message gets buried in a sludge pile of clichés.


You do not want anyone reviewing your book to mention clichés!

I hope you all dig deep and write the hard stuff.

If you feel stuck, consider the lecture packet for the third in my Big Three writing craft courses: Writing Body Language and Dialogue Cues Like a Psychologist. I teach that online course next March. That’s why the lecture packets are available through Paypal from my website.

You’ll find loads of teaching points and examples in my lectures. You’ll learn how to write body language and dialogue cues fresh, and it won’t seem so hard.

The more you write fresh, the easier it becomes. The more you write fresh, the stronger your writing.

Post a comment and you could win an online course from Lawson Writer’s Academy!

Check out the courses we’re offering in June:

1. Character-Themed Writing -- Instructor: Elizabeth Essex

2. Love Your Voice -- Instructor: Julie Rowe

3. From blah to beats: Giving Your Chapter a Pulse -- Instructor: Rhay Christou

Due to my travel schedule to present at a university, at writing conferences, and teach six Immersion classes across the U.S. this summer, the next online class I’m teaching is in August: Visceral Rules: Beyond Hammering Hearts.

Margie Lawson, Brenda Novak

Margie Lawson with Brenda Novak at the CG Conference

Please check out my three donations on Brenda Novak's Diabetes Auction. 


1. Twelve Months of Online Courses from Lawson Writer's Academy -- $600 value

2. Margie Lawson's 50 Page Triple Pass Deep Edit -- $350 value

3. Immersion Master Class, Lodging, and Two Bonus Days with Margie Lawson! -- $1550 value

Thank you!

See you on the blog!

All smiles................Margie

p.s. No you haven't imagined it...we have an extra post for you this week as a thank you (in advance) for helping us transition to our new site next week!

** Writers In The Storm is getting a makeover! **
We're moving to our new digs June 2nd. Stay tuned for party news (and giveaways)...

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Margie

Margie Lawson, Writers In The StormMargie Lawson —psychotherapist, editor, and international presenter – teaches writers how to use her psychologically-based editing systems and deep editing techniques to create page turners. Margie has presented over eighty full day master classes in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Writers credit her innovative deep editing approaches with taking their writing several levels higher—to publication, awards, and bestseller lists.

To learn about Lawson Writer’s Academy, Margie’s 4-day Immersion Master Classes (in Colorado, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Dallas, Seattle, San Antonio, Houston, and on Whidbey Island), her full day Master Class presentations, keynote speeches, on-line courses, lecture packets, and newsletter, please visit www.MargieLawson.com.

63 comments on “Margie's Rule # 2: Write the Hard Stuff -- Facial Expressions”

  1. Thanks so much for this post. I find it hard to write facial expressions without saying "a sad look passed over his face" or things like that. Thanks for all of your help. 🙂

    1. Hello Proverbs 31 Teen!

      Ah -- You're smiling! So glad you're here today.

      Hundreds more examples, and teaching points too, in Writing Body Language and Dialogue Cues Like a Psychologist!

  2. Reblogged this on Daphodill's Garden and commented:
    Margie's methods are some of the best I've come across, and so in line with the type of reading experience I prefer and the type of writing I attempt. Her course transcripts are a treasure trove of knowledge--well worth the investment. These blog posts are a great suppliment (or introduction) to Margie's teachings. Do yourself a favor and follow Writers in the Storm and their "Margie's Rule" series.

    1. Hey Daphodill!

      Thanks for reblogging, and for the kudos too!

      If you took my online courses, or ordered lecture packets a few years ago, you may not know about my three latest courses.

      1. A Deep Editing Guide to Make Your Openings Pop!
      2. Visceral Rules: Beyond Hammering Hearts
      3. Fab 30, Advanced Deep Editing, A Master Class

      Now you know! 😉

  3. Thanks for the poke as I work on revisions. The tough part for me is figuring out exactly how my character would see/react to facial expressions from his/her POV. Sometimes the timing of the reaction with regard to the action of the scene makes it difficult to dig deep because I feel like I'm slowing the pace. It's a juggling between dwelling on expression and/or moving the action along. Any hints on how to do that effectively? Thanks!

    1. Betty --

      You want to know how to include powerful subtext without sacrificing pacing.

      I paraphrased. 🙂

      Smart question! Three-point response.

      1. You can keep it short. Digging deep doesn't have to slow pacing. Just a few words can carry big time power.

      Example: Fresh five word response in THE BLADE ITSELF, by Marcus Sakey.

      -- Old instincts tightened Danny's skin.

      Wow. Those five words grab me.

      2. Only include subtext when it's needed the most.

      3. Expand time. If the stimulus is huge, you may want to expand time.
      When you expand time you have an opportunity draw the reader much deeper into the emotion of the scene. You include power internalizations, action, body language, dialogue cues, and visceral responses. And you can dig deep and write fresh. I teach writers how to expand time in my Deep Editing course.

      Here's an example from Kennedy Ryan's debut, WHEN YOU ARE MINE, to be released June 17th.

      “Sit down,” he said in heavily accented English, his eyes flat and expressionless, as if killing a man didn’t even scrape the surface of his soul.

      Strong writing!

      Thanks for chiming in. I hope my response was helpful.

  4. Margie, thanks so much for including my quotes - AND for the reminder! After reading the quotes from everyone above, I went back to my current scene and freshened a smile - smiles are hard - readers see them more (I think) than any facial expression, and the important ones, you have to highlight!

    Fae won your immersion class on the Brenda Novak auction - everyone check it out, great stuff there for writers - and for a good cause!

    Can't wait to see you in San Antonio, Margie.

    1. Good to know that when you read Margie yet again, you also rush back to a WIP to seek out those tattered nods and shakes. Good that Fae won Margie and sad that I won't be seeing you in San Antonio, Laura.

      1. Florence, I believe that was a few years ago that Fae won. It was a major turning point for her AND Laura. Will you be at RWA National in San Antonio this year?

        1. Nope, my daughter is expecting her first some time between the third week of June and when nature calls. Either way, I'll probably be in New York there or about 🙂 I'll give you to call of the Brooklyn Dodgers ... "Wait 'til next year!"

    2. Okay, had to share what you inspired me to this morning - damn, I love this writing thing! (some days, anyway).

      “Oh, but of course.” Danovan’s sarcastic lilt wore cement overshoes.

    3. Hugs to Immersion-grad and RITA Finalist Laura Drake!

      Yes! Writing fresh facial expressions has a dual impact. By adding subtext, you'll add a much-needed psychological layer. Your fresh writing will also give readers (including reviewers!) a boost. 🙂

      I can't wait to cheer for you at the RITAs! THE SWEET SPOT is loaded with winning writing. You deserve to win!

  5. Okay girls, I kept reading even though I was sure this was a mistake 🙂 An extra post for us? A treat for the sweet? Damn, when you guys give us a gift, you don't fool around (okay so that was a bit cliche ... or I could say: So shoot me!!)

    Margie, did you know I am directionally challenged and got lost going home twice when I moved down south? Oh yeah. And did you also know that taking your classes and reading and rereading your lessons is the way I pound stuff into my head. If I don't read and read, I might forget, like where the hell I live.

    Thanks for all of this, the examples, for shouting out Laura yet again, and most of all for being a damn good teacher ... can I say ... damn skippy? I mean you think anyone remembers that one?

  6. Thanks so much for this, Margie! After my most recent Margie class (gasp--TWO YEARS AGO. Been too long!), I designed a Word macro to cut and paste all the sentences with nods, smiles, "face", "expression," "look," and other expression & body part words into a new document to go over them with a fine-tooth comb. I hate the work, but it makes such a huge difference. I just started this round of editing on my latest WIP, so perfect timing!

    Also, thanks for suggesting which course we should focus on for punching these up. I already have the Big Three; I just have to find the right binder now, LOL.

    1. Hey Jordan!

      Two years since you took a Margie-class? You've missed two, maybe three, of my more recent online courses:

      1. A Deep Editing Guide to Make Your Openings Pop!
      2. Visceral Rules: Beyond Hammering Hearts
      3. Fab 30, Advanced Deep Editing, A Master Class

      I'm teaching the VISCERAL RULES class in August. Nudge. Nudge. 🙂

      Hope I get to meet you in person sometime. Going to RWA National?

  7. Great post as always, Margie. Hoping to attack the WIP this weekend. Will be off SM. Fun, necessary, but it gobbles the minutes and hours from the day, swallowing them whole, keeping me from doing the writing part of the work of writing. 🙂 Thanks for the reminders about writing the "Hard Stuff." I'll FB & Tweet. 🙂

    1. Hello Immersion-Grad Marsha!

      You're smart to take a break from social media and focus,focus, focus on your writing.

      Looking forward to stretching your brain in an Advanced Immersion class in 2015!

  8. I love so much of the writing above, but this line in particular struck me: "Her lips attempted a smile, but her eyes didn't bother." Sometimes it's the simple, poignant sentence that's so perfect. I easily get a visual from this. Well done, Laura!

    And thanks for all these examples, Margie! It's hard to go that extra mile and power up the facial expressions, but so worth it. Can't wait to see you in San Antonio AND Immersion! 🙂

    1. It's really hard to amp up all the facial expressions. A major challenge of mine, for sure. And YES, Julie and I are gonna get to Immersion. *mental boogie through the kitchen*

      I'll be gimping around after hip surgery so there is no San Antonio for me this year, but can y'all do me a favor? Can you video Laura winning the Best First Book RITA, since I'm pretty sure that's gonna happen? Thanks. It would be a great favor for me since I can't cheer her on myself.


      1. No one would like to see it more than I! Thanks, all. Cross your fingers for me! (and yes, I know it's hard to type with crossed fingers.)

        1. Yep, Elizabeth. Hip surgery on June 19th! And then this crazy hip pain will be GONE. Yeee-haaaaaaaaaaaaaw! <-- *channeling my inner Texan for Laura*

    2. Hello Immersion-Grad Julie --

      I love that line too! Perfect content, perfect cadence, and perfect Laura-Drake style!

      I'm THRILLED that you and Jenny Hansen are Immersioning together in October! I'm holding the last spot for you!

      I'm excited I get to see you in San Antonio too!

      I'm having a Meet & Greet, Hug & Chug in one of the bars at the RWA conference hotel right after the Literacy Signing. In a couple of weeks, I'll let you know which bar. Bring your friends!

  9. As I race to the finish line with my new novel, this was a great reminder to clean up my cliches! Thanks so much, Margie--this is an extremely useful post, and I love these examples.

    1. Hello Holly!
      Always good to nix, fix, or kill your cliches.
      Hope I get to see you in one of my online courses sometime!
      Thanks for chiming in.

  10. Thanks for the reminder. I tend to fall back on cliches when I'm writing my first draft. I get excited just reading the examples. I'm off for more fresh revisions on my WIP.

    1. Hello Stephanie --

      First draft cliches happen. No worries, as long as you go back and nix, fix, or twist them.

      You could type FIX FIX FIX after everything that needs fixin'. Do a FIND on FIX FIX FIX and there's no way you'll forget to go back and write fresh.

  11. I loved this example. "Her lips attempted a smile, but her eyes didn’t bother." It says so much.
    I struggle with fresh facial expression descriptions in my writing, so I was excited to read this post. I will often say less to avoid cliches when writing, but some things do need fleshing out. I will tweet the post. btw- I am taking 'Creating that historical feel' on Margie's site and learning so much.

    1. Hello VFA --
      Ah -- You got a lot out of that Lawson Writer's Academy course by Anne Mateer. Fabulous!
      Hope I get to see you in a Margie-class sometime.
      If you want to learn how to write fresh, hang out with me online. 🙂

  12. Margie,

    As a newbie writer, I so appreciate your posts. Your examples help me to look at my WIP in a different light.

  13. Margie,
    You are an amazing teacher! And your posts are like mini classes. Always so helpful. Thanks for everything you do to inspire better, stronger, cliché-less writing!

    1. Shanda --

      Thank you!

      You know I love helping writers make their writing stronger. And it's so fun to watch Margie-Grads win awards and hit bestseller lists!

  14. Now Cal doesn’t bother hiding his surprise, or his fury. His neutral expression mushrooms into something livid and then clenches. Slammed brows, squeezed lips.
    Love that, my face started doing the actions as I read it, lol. Congrats Laura on the double nominations, something for us to aspire to 🙂
    Looking forward to the next class, Margie.
    Here's a little snippet from my WIP, what do you think?
    Her attempted smile came out looking more like an over-stretched elastic band.

  15. Great post! I was thrilled to see my VV-NYT sister and her stellar writing highlighted on a Margie post. Go Kennedy Ryan! Yeah! Can't wait to read When You Are Mine. Thanks for the fresh writing reminders, Margie.

    1. Hello Immersion-Grad Suzanne --

      I'm so proud of your Immersion sister, Kennedy Ryan. Her big release day is June 17th!
      I'm featuring Kennedy Ryan on my Pubbed Margie-Grad Blog on June 19th. Mark your calendar!

  16. I'm editing my draft of a contemporary as we speak. When is the best time to go and just focus on fresh writing and dialogue queues? I'm finding myself going over and tweaking the beginning chapters over and over. Should I focus on developmental type edits then go back and kill the cliche's?

    How much is too much? Are there guidelines? I've taken the deep edits and dialogue cues classes. They've helped my writing so much I think my critique partners have signed up. 🙂 Just need to know how to use these tips most effectively.

    Amy Pfaff

  17. Reblogged this on Amy Pfaff and commented:
    I had to share. I've been taking Margie's classes this year and have seen a huge improvement in my writing. Dialogue cues and tags kill me. I tend to get lazy when drafting and use lots of cliches. You don't even want to know how many times I've used the word 'smiled' in a manuscript.
    Hope you find this useful. Writers on the Storm is one of my fave blog sites. --- Amy

  18. Margie, your work is so important to me for two reasons. One is that you give me, a lifelong nonfiction writer, insights into the words needed for telling stories, and two is that you keep pushing me to do the hard work - the first words that pour forth from eager lips catch and fall, instead of winged doves they are like that goopy stuff in lava lamps blobbing to the bottom. the corners of my mouth going down to join them. 🙂 This comment took way too long. Hoping to win a course. 🙂

  19. I hope to start a second draft soon, and this post will remind me hunt down and kill those bland face expressions as I rework the manuscript.

  20. Margie, thank you for this rule. Avoiding cliches is hard work, but then what writing isn't?

    I think all the excerpts are great, but the predatory hawk really came to life for me.

    I'm looking forward to more of your rules.

  21. Thank you for this post! I'm always excited to see Margie posts, and they always teach me something new. Even if learning something new means I have to rework and rework and rework. Such is writing!

  22. I haven't take a class from you for a while. Maybe August. I just started Elizabeth Essex's class today on character-themed words. I'm always looking for more clues on how to improve. I won't be in San Antonio, but I'm planning on New York next year.


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