It is said (apparently inaccurately) that the Inuit have many words for ‘snow.’ Why would that be? Why, because they see a lot of snow, of course.
English has very few words for ‘smile,’ even though we see a lot of them (I hope). Grin. Grimace. Beam. Smirk. Maybe even Simper. And you can drag in fellow travelers Squint and certainly Leer. But really, not a very large collection of descriptives for something a writer needs often.
Smile, look, walk, and similar words indicate classes of action but do not show specifics. Use them, and you leave the reader knowing what happened but not having a picture in mind. They’re placeholders for better description. Boring, as well.
All of this was grating on my mind yesterday. I was writing a three-person sequence in which a lot of smiling was going on, not all of it happy. Sure, I could tell the reader that Weezy’s smile masked anger, but how does that look?
I decided to take a break and walk around Lake of the Isles, my favorite in-city lake in Minneapolis. Usually, I use my walking time to work out plot and character issues, and that was the way I started my walk. A couple of blocks along the way, a late middle-aged man approached. He took me in, then gave the very briefest horizontal stretching of the lips in a straight line. Hard to tell whether it was a smile or gastronomic distress. That got me watching the people I encountered. A young woman gave me the “I am smiling because I’m cool but don’t get your hopes up” rictus (ahh, rictus … I missed that as a near-synonym). A young father gave me a possessive, prideful smile as his two, young bike-mounted sons ran me off the walking path. A mother’s joy-to-the-world smile as she glanced up from her baby. A hajib-wearing woman smiled with her eyes. A young packed-with-energy guy gave me a nod of recognition as he ran by, served up with a smirk. (I race walk. To him, I was surely old, hefty, and weird.) A woman gifted me a happy smile that took in her whole face – mouth, eyes, and forehead. It was the kind of smile that makes you want to know the person just to understand how she has successfully figured out the puzzle of life.
I was reminded there is no such thing as a generic smile. The smile is a creature of the structure of a face, as well as the inner beauty or turmoil of the person smiling. Guess I have to work harder on my smiles. No one said writing would be easy.
Thanks for making me puzzle over something I’d never though about. I will be more observant of smiles.
Love your observations, John! Great post.