The eyes have it when it comes to conveying complex mental states

Our facial expressions give away more of what we’re thinking than we thought. New research shows that people’s eyes, in particular, are a dead giveaway.

The function behind a facial expression usually mirrors the person’s emotional state. So if someone is narrowing their eyes as if they are scrutinising something they are likely to be feeling thoughtful; wondering about something. If you feel as though you are being scrutinised then you probably are. Be careful that the other person isn’t just screwing up their eyes against the sun.

In Psychological Science we read that:

The research reveals, for example, that people consistently associate narrowed eyes – which can enhance visual discrimination – with discrimination-related emotions including disgust and suspicion

Recognising emotions through the eyes

In tests, participants consistently matched the emotional state of a face in a photograph from seeing the eyes only. This shows a remarkable amount of awareness about others that you probably don’t even know you are using.

And it’s a great tool to use in writing. One we all use every day, which makes it more familiar to readers than they think.  When they build a visual picture of characters in their heads – a vivid, living, breathing picture – they start to feel what the characters are feeling – or what you want the reader to think the characters are feeling.

We like to manipulate readers don’t we?

Build a picture for your reader

Allow the reader to picture things for themselves. After all, you understand the visual clues in a movie without being told what characters are thinking and feeling. You know from watching them and listening to them.

Describing what someone’s face is doing is a more valuable exercise than you think.

Jerod’s eyes slid sideways and down and he chewed his inner lip. His feet shifted.

Dawn watched her husband through narrowed eyes. What had he meant when he said he felt a bit jaded?

Sheila’s eyes widened, darting here to there and back again before looking at me. ‘Oh my God,’ she said. ‘I’ve just thought of something.’

Are you getting it? It doesn’t matter what the people are doing in the examples above – are you getting an idea of how they might be feeling?

I haven’t told you that Jerod has just been turned down by the girl he asked out and feels sad, rejected, awkward, a failure. Or that Dawn has been suspecting that her husband is tiring of her and of married life. Or that Sheila has just remembered something really important. It doesn’t matter whether you felt something different to my intentions,; the important thing is that you feel something.

Giving emotional signals

The report from Psychological Science goes on to say:

Findings from a second study showed that the eyes provide equally strong emotional signals when they’re embedded in the context of a whole face, even when the features in the lower face don’t indicate the same expression as the eyes do.

Thus, relative to the rest of our facial features, the eyes seem to have it when it comes to conveying complex mental states.

“This finding underscores how the origins of reading mental states from the eyes relate in part to how the eyes see,” the researchers write

There you go, you see. You can convey your protagonist’s inner world without resorting to slap-in-the-face statements about them feeling sad, afraid, remorseful – show me what they are experiencing and I might just feel it too. That’s what pulls me into a book – emotion, feeling, wanting to care about the characters.

Practise writing emotions

Take notice of how your favourite authors manipulate your emotions in their stories. Do they use descriptions of body language and facial expressions? How much does this author tell you what a character is feeling rather than describing their emotion.

Study facial expression and ask yourself whether you could describe them well enough (in context in the story) that others would guess pretty much immediately what your character is feeling.

Don’t forget, a mixture of dialogue, scene description and body movement will take more words than a simple statement but they will be infinitely more rewarding to read.