Your Face: An Exercise in Description

This exercise was jokingly suggested to me by a co-worker and friend after she’d read my “Hands Description” exercises.  It started out as a tribute to the joy we take in “your face” and “your mom” jokes (along with many other of our co-workers), before this “face” exercise morphed into a letter to my characters: past, present, and future.

Writing exercises don’t merit dedications–if they did, however, I’d dedicate this one to the friends who take the time to read the stuff I post here, and especially to the person who suggested this exercise.  Thank you. 

I could say your face is beautiful, or ugly, or intelligent-looking, or vacant like a highway motel; but then I’d just be weighing you down with useless adjectives, and no one wants that.

I could just focus on the physical aspects of your face.  I could say your eyes are sky-blue, or sparkle like sapphires; but saying those clichés makes me throw up in my mouth a little, so let’s avoid that.  If we’re to go with your face being vacant, I could describe your eyes as “pale, blue, and empty as the cloudless sky.”  Comparing your eyes to more subtle gems—like opals—as opposed to gaudy ones like sapphires or (god forbid this with green eyes) “emeralds” would be more effective; eyes are too deep to glitter like sapphires or emeralds.  But, I could also utilize the overused sapphire and emerald eyes if I wanted to indicate that you’re a shallow person who’s gaudy and predictable.  If your eyes were amber and you were a fixed person I’d say that they were like a golden, hardened sap—with more eloquence, of course.

Then there’s your mouth.  God, your mouth!  If I wanted to imply you were dumb, I’d say your mouth was always open to suck in shallow breath.  I’d describe the raspy decay rattling at the back of your throat with every inhale, and the smell of your rotting teeth with every exhale.  But then again, you might be intelligent.  Then your mouth would not only be closed, but slightly drawn in—poised in conscious thought, before it decides whether or not to open and pour forth its well of knowledge.  (Yes, yes—both “well of knowledge” and “pour forth” are clichés, but their combination plus the imagery of water makes it at least semi-clever.)  Maybe you’re an extremely sensuous and sexual woman.  Rather than describing the curves of your waist, your hips, or your bust (boring!) I’ll describe the curves of your lips, how they pucker in the shape of a retro-loveseat; which gives rise to all sorts of sensual images.  It lets my reader know just how sexy you are without any bland vulgarity, while leaving them with plenty to fantasize about.

Of course, maybe you’re a guy.  In which case, screw your mouth, I want to talk about your facial hair.  If you’re a pubescent boy struggling to become a man, then I’ll show that struggle in your beard.  I’ll show the patchy spots, I’ll show how your poor excuse for a mustache won’t cooperate, or just grows in stupid places like under your nostrils (giving the illusion of super-long nose-hair about which you’re constantly teased in the story I’m telling).  Maybe your beard is only just under your jaw, where it curls like unruly pubic hair.  (Ooh, but that kind of over-kills the fact that you’re a struggling adolescent, doesn’t it?)

Maybe you’re a hippy with a long beard that tickles your belly.  Maybe you shampoo and condition your facial hair so that it gleams.  Maybe you’re a humanitarian who refuses to shave his Hitler-esq mustache.

The nose on your face I’ve ignored until now.  Noses are hard.  If you’re a sharp but malicious person, then I could describe your large and cavernous nostrils that inhale like a vacuum—indicating your propensity for sniffing out a scandal.  If you got into fights a lot, I could be boring and just say your nose was crooked.  But it would be more interesting to compare the profile of your crooked nose to a streak of lightning—especially if you’re impulsive and powerful.  If your quarrelsome behavior was something in the past but continually haunts you in your present attempts at a straightforward life, then your twice-broken nose would be clean-looking but just slightly off-center—like your character.

Then there’s the shape of your actual face—your face, which led us on this descriptive journey.  If you were a loving, compassionate person—but I didn’t want to be unoriginal by saying it and waste time by showing it—then I’d describe your tiny chin and your jaw curving up along to a wide forehead as “heart-shaped.”  If you were sad, depressed, or emotional (and especially if you were going to overcome these traits), I’d take the same sharp chin and wide forehead and say your face had the shape of “an upside-down tear-drop.”

Do you get it now?  Do you see why I spend so much time on your face?  Why your face is so important that words like “pretty” or “disgusting” do nothing to sculpt it?  Look at your face.  Do it—go to the mirror now and look at your face.  Tell me what’s to be found there.

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2 thoughts on “Your Face: An Exercise in Description

  1. that really inspired me for a descriptive paragraph I’m writing on entering a dark room of the body world’s exhibit. I’m working on describing a tendon on a plastinated severed arm that slightly moves and shudders in almost animation as someone bumps the exhibit case its in. Do you have any tips on how to describe it in chilling detail?

    • I feel like watching it move is chilling in itself. But to make that stand out more, you also need to describe the mundane. What sort of display case is this severed arm kept in? What’s the flooring like? Giving your reader something normal that they’d experience in their everyday life, and then hitting them with something as bizarre as a preserved severed arm is how you create the chills.
      Thanks for reading!

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