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I am trying to describe how my protagonist reacts to congratulations from a friend about a genuinely significant career achievement. My protagonist is modest and self-deprecating by nature, and I am looking for a 'playful' expression that accepts the congratulation in a way that would be believable and appropriate for two people that have known each other for many years, who both share similar values, and who both have a good sense of humor. I am thinking of something akin to a shrug, or a slight opening of the arms, paired perhaps with a slight raising of the eyebrows to signify communication of mock surprise or disbelief. When I try to write this, however, I am getting caught up in minutiae about how to describe the body movements and expressions. For example, here are three descriptions I've come up with so far (I warn you, they're not good!):

THE CONGRATULATION FROM A FRIEND

“You’re in the team, aren’t you?” Neil asked. “You’re bloody in!”

THE PROTAGONIST'S REACTION (ONE VERSION)

Billy spread his arms and raised his eyebrows in mock surprise.

THE PROTAGONIST'S REACTION (ANOTHER VERSION)

Billy shrugged his shoulders, playfully raising his eyebrows in mock surprise.

THE PROTAGONIST'S REACTION (YET ANOTHER VERSION)

Billy playfully shrugged an expression of mock surprise at his friend.

Help! Any suggestions and/or input much appreciated! Thank you.

3 Answers 3

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When I try to write this, however, I am getting caught up in minutiae about how to describe the body movements and expressions.

Then don't describe body movements and expressions

This isn't a movie. The medium is not visual.

Describing characters moving their body parts and face muscles does not convey emotional information to the reader. Instead they are taken out of the story to try to picture a pantomime gesture on a person they cannot see, and then interpret that gesture's meaning in the context of the story.

This writing problem is often called 'filter words' where describing gestures and movements actually distances the reader from the scene. It 'filters' reader empathy through some unknown scene camera. The reader is reduced to reading a description of what this camera sees, rather than experiencing the character's emotions directly.

He made a physical gesture and an expression that indicated he felt embarrassed.

He felt embarrassed.

The more you describe, the less I understand

Billy spread his arms and raised his eyebrows in mock surprise.

I'm not sure that we share the same definition for 'mock surprise'. My interpretation for 'mocking' is not humility – rather the opposite. 'Mock surprise' means he is making an exaggerated face to show he is not surprised at all. He expected the win, and is mocking the possibility that his friend should be surprised about it.

Again, if you simply convey the emotional state: he felt embarrassed by the attention, I cannot misinterpret the character's inner state through descriptions that are open to interpretation.

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I don't think of "mock surprise" as self-deprecating, I think of it as a form of sarcasm. Since it is "mock surprise", that means it is feigned surprise, which means Billy is not actually surprised at all, he fully expected to be on the team all along. That is not "modesty" or "self-deprecation".

If modesty and self-deprecation is what you really want, try this.

Billy took a deep breath and blew it out, cheeks puffed. "Thanks, dude. I really wanted it, but no joke, this team is scary good. And now everyone is expecting me to deliver miracles, and I'm just hoping I can keep up."

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Why describe his reaction? You can let the friend notice and say it, with subtext. (I don't know the tone or context of your story, but the dialogue could be something like this.)

“You’re in the team, aren’t you?” Neil asked. “You’re bloody in!” "I guess I am." "You guess you are? Mate, this is a big thing! This is huge! This is so huge and you are like 'I guess I'm in'?"

Personally, I appreciate and use descriptions to establish tone or create anticipation. I find descriptions a lot less useful to convey emotions or character. For instance, when I introduce an archetypal Aphrodite/Femme Fatale/Temptress, I don’t describe how she looks but I show how people react to her when she enters a room. And when a Frankenstein-style Monster enters that room, people freeze or start running. I feel I can’t 'describe' an ugly stitched-up face horrible enough to get the same effect.

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