What Are They Really Thinking?

My husband found the DVD box set of one of my favourite TV shows the other day. All three seasons! I was a pretty happy lady. We’ve been watching an episode or two each night and I’m loving it just as much the second time around.

Do you want to know what it is?

Lie To Me.

It stars a British actor – Tim Roth. He plays the role of a human lie detector. His official title is Deception Specialist, but basically he can read people’s micro-expressions and tell what someone is really feeling, whether they’re holding something back or are afraid or guilty or ashamed or disgusted – he can see it all when most normal people wouldn’t even notice. The show is based on research conducted by Dr. Paul Ekman, a clinical psychologist, author and manager of the Paul Ekman group – a small company that produces training devices relevant to emotional skills, and is initiating new research relevant to national security and law enforcement. (link: http://www.paulekman.com/)… and then of course Hollywood added some sugar and spice.

Personally, I think anyone who writes fiction should watch this show and here’s why…

Most of the characters we write about have secrets. They have to, otherwise the story would be super boring and predictable! We are trying to entice our readers to turn the page by creating question marks and running small mysteries throughout the story. As I said in a previous post (link: https://indiesunlimited.com/2012/08/22/following-the-cookie-crumbs/), we’re leaving cookie crumbs for them to follow.

We don’t want to bog our readers down with copious amounts of description or go into their heads too much. A character might be saying one thing, but thinking something else. How do we portray that to our audience in a subtle way?

Through their actions.

How are they standing? What are they doing with their hands? Where are they looking? What are they really thinking?

Sometimes you don’t want to be overly obvious about this, remember – it’s all about the mystery. But you also need to leave a few cookie crumbs.

So how cool would it be to add micro-expressions to your repotoire? During a conversation between two characters one of them might swallow – a sign of nervousness. Or as a character is observing something their eyebrows might draw together tightly – a sign of anger. You can even use the tone a character is speaking with or a clever selection of words that will mask what they truly feel.

Now – I’m sure many of you include micro-expressions in your writing without even realizing, but sometimes it’s good to be reminded of these things. It may open doors to touching on emotions in a way you haven’t tried before. I know my characters shake their heads way too much… or shrug their shoulders. I’m looking forward to applying what I’ve learnt from this show to add a little something new to my next manuscript.

Here’s a blog post that has pictures showing some of the most common micro-expressions.

Link: http://www.persuasive.net/it-is-written-all-over-your-face-understanding-facial-expressions

I’ve also just discovered a book that I immediately purchased called, “The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression” by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. (Link: http://www.amazon.com/Emotion-Thesaurus-Writers-Character-Expression/dp/1475004958/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1350275580&sr=1-1&keywords=Emotion+Thesaurus) The mail can’t come fast enough as I anxiously wait to peel it open and pull out my highlighter.

Resources like the ones I’ve mentioned are gold. We spend our lives expressing ourselves through actions and words. As writers we need to make sure we understand human behaviour and emotion so we can reflect it in a realistic, yet powerful way.

If you do ever get your hands on the TV show, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


Author: Melissa Pearl

Melissa Pearl is a Contributing Author for Indies Unlimited and author of multiple novels spanning a variety of genres, from YA fantasy and paranormal to romantic suspense, including award-winning novel, BETWIXT. For more on Melissa, visit her blog or her Amazon author page.

24 thoughts on “What Are They Really Thinking?”

  1. Back around 1990, my ex used to work with Dr. Gottman at the Martial Research Facility at the University of Washington, Psychology Department (http://www.gottman.com/). She had an art history degree (they needed people who could recognize facial movements well and artists fit the bill). I have a Psych degree and worked elsewhere at the UW at the time, but I helped them with their computers for their FACS coding on digital time coded workstations. They would watch the videos and record facial movements on a timeline. All based as you mentioned on Ekman’s work; Gottman was also using SPAFF coding. As far back at then, Ekman’s people were training professionals like judges, FBI and CIA.

    Gottman’s lab was interviewing/video taping married couples and using FACS/SPAFF, indicate and verify their responses along with metabolic indicators. Very interesting stuff.

    When I first saw that Lie To Me was coming on, I was pleased to see they were oing to be doing that kind of a show and I ended up liking it a lot. I was sorry to see it go. Love Tim Roth. 🙂

    Thanks for the article.

  2. As they say “the devil is in the details”. Without those details, or, in this case micro-emotion indicators, we would never hold a readers attention for long. Good stuff, Melissa. Thank you.

  3. I loved this show. Especially as a writer. When they would talk about the different micro-expressions and what they meant it was awesome. Little tells to add to the story.

  4. My wife watched Lie to Me at some point, but I’ve never caught a full episode…mainly because I watch too many shows already :). I might have to get the character expression thesaurus you mentioned.. Looks like a wonderful resource!

    1. The Character Expression Thesaurus is awesome. I reached for it three or four times when I was writing yesterday. It’s great for some fresh ideas. It’s easy to get stale as an author and go for the same thing all the time.

  5. Great post and thank you for the link to know what some of these facial expressions and body languages mean so we can use them. I also bought the Emotion Thesaurus and keep forgetting to use it, so thank you for that reminder to pull it out.

  6. Great post, Melissa. It always seems to be more effective to me to say something like, “His eyes narrowed and his mouth was set in a grim line,” rather than, “I could tell he was angry.” I need to look for this book — thanks for the heads up!

  7. Your post is giving me major flashbacks. I haven’t heard that name in 20 years, since I was an undergrad research assistant for a study of facial expressions by one of Ekman’s colleagues. I had no idea that show was based on his research. Now, I’ll have to dig up a few episodes and watch it!

  8. Sorry I’m so late to the party, Melissa, this time I’m probably so late that it’s over; however I just had to make a comment: excellent post and, agreeing with everyone else who dropped by, very relevant to the writing fraternity in general.

    I don’t watch much TV and I just happened across this show while having a bite to eat (I sometimes surf the channels while I’m eating). I really like Tim Roth in anything, he’s a really great actor (I think he was in Repertory for a while), I first saw him in ‘Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead’, with Gary Oldman, brilliant stuff, and I’ve liked him in everything I’ve seen him in since. I don’t even know if they showed the whole series of ‘Lie To Me’ here in Australia but I think what I saw was the last of the series. I will definitely hire the box set from the local video shop though.

    1. The beauty of receiving comments via e-mail is that no one can ever be late to the party.

      Thanks so much for your thoughts. The first time I saw Tim Roth was in Rob Roy and he played the villain so amazingly that I actually couldn’t stand him for a few years. I loved him in Lie To Me, though. It was nice to see him play a good character. He’s a very talented man.

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