#Writing 50,000 Inimitable Smiles by Margie Lawson

Welcome to Techie Tuesday here at More Cowbell! This is the day each week when I unleash my inner geek and we talk about some groovy piece of technology or a technical point of writing.

Today, I’m ringing my Cowbell as hard as I possibly can! Why, you ask??

#1 – We have the amazing Margie Lawson here to make our characters’ smiles LEAP off the page.

#2 – I made it to the second round of Clay Morgan’s March Movie Madness and I need y’all to go here  to vote for RAPUNZEL tomorrow to help me advance to Round 3. (Polls open at about 8 am PST and stay open all day!!)

Note: My gal will be up against “Farm Boy” Westley from the Princess Bride, either today or tomorrow. Yes, Farm Boy’s hot <blah-blah-blah>. But Rapunzel kicks A$$ with only her wits, her frying pan and the 80 feet of hair she’s got to schlep around. Now I ask you: who’s got MORE COWBELL??! [ra-pun-ZEL..ra-pun-ZEL…]

Enough of my shenanigans. He-e-e-ere’s Margie… 🙂

Actually, that's Baby Girl to make you smile... NOW you get Margie!

Big You’re-the-Best smiles to Jenny Hansen for inviting me to be here today!

Writing 50,000 Inimitable Smiles
By Margie Lawson

Picture your best friend’s love-you smile.

Now picture your best friend’s I-just-got-a-contract smile.

Now picture your best friend’s I-backed-into-a-pole-when-driving-your-car smile.

I’m guessing those smiles looked different. Way different.

Writers have 50,000 ways they can write a smile. Make that 50 million. But some authors primarily give the reader basic one-descriptor smiles throughout their books.

They may use many of the same phrases, the same patterns, to describe smiles. Aack!

Popular options include:

  • Smiles sliding across faces
  • Smiles faltering
  • Smiles stretching
  • Smiles planted
  • Smiles blooming
  • Smiles that don’t reach eyes
  • Smiles that pull, tug, and twitch corners of mouths

Those options are so popular, they’re overused.  Cliched.

Here’s a list of every smile in one romantic suspense book.  Thirty-six smiles. The story and characters may be enticing and intriguing, but the smiles are all basic.


Did those smiles make my point?

Indicating that a character smiles, carries little meaning. It’s used as a beat, like these sentences:

She smiled.

He shrugged.

She sighed.

A basic smile doesn’t add much information. A basic smile doesn’t deepen characterization. A basic smile doesn’t give the reader an uplift.

A basic smile doesn’t boost the writer toward a contest win, a contract, or a bestseller list.

Why write basic smiles? 

Why write basic facial expressions?

Push yourself to WRITE FRESH, and you’ll write a page turner.

Check out these examples!


I look across at Lori, who’s smiling at me. Thing is I don’t know if it’s a wanting-to-please-teacher smile, or whether it’s a genuine I-want-to-get-to-know-you smile.


“They’re all in there waiting for you,” she said, flashing an I’m-glad-I’m-not-you smile.

If Angela Hunt had written it as a weak smile, a wan smile, or a half-smile, it wouldn’t have been as interesting. By writing fresh she gave the reader more information, and an uplift.


She smiles, putting up her best defense. Not an annoyed smile; not a jaded smile; not even an angry get-outta-my-face-you-overhyper-little-gnat kinda smile. Just a nice, calming Beth smile.


The receptionist smiled and nodded in that way people do when they aren’t listening.

(Ha! I’ve seen that not-listening smile in real life, but not on the page.)

Here are two more examples from Harlan Coben. We’ve all seen people try to smile and fail. Can you visualize these expressions?

She tried to smile at me, but it was as if the effort would wound her.

She stepped toward me and tried to smile. Her smile had always been                  spectacular, the kind that makes you think of poetry and spring showers, a dazzler that can change your day. This smile, however, was not like that. It was tighter. It was strained. And I wondered if she was holding back or if she could no longer smile like she used to, if something had dimmed the wattage permanently.


I smiled in a cool way.

Susan smiled the smile she used when she knew I was wrong but planned to let me get away with it.


The grin, when it finally came, spread slowly across his face, moving all his freckles.


When he spotted me, though, he smiled. His normal smile, the mouth ends pulled down, stretched with amusement as if he were resisting the moment his teeth would break through, this smile that had swept over me so many times.

As he walked to the table, I smiled back, an abnormal smile. Someone trying to smile, forcing herself to look normal and happy and carefree.

Read her two paragraph example again. Do you have places where characters exchange a smile, or could exchange a smile?  Is it empowered with fresh writing and internalizations that carry emotion?


He glanced up and looked right into the camera, the smile he still wore dripping with a silent threat.

The smile on her face didn’t waver. It didn’t falter or fade in the least. But the smile in her eyes, the genuine part of a smile, vanished.


 I widened my smile, which in my experience could open more doors than an AK- 47.

That smile made me laugh!

In my research, I’ve noticed that some bestsellers rarely have a plain, stand-alone smile. When they do have a character smile, they empower it.

They also write very few smiles. They may write a few per book. They show emotional reactions by using more fresh body language and dialogue cues. When they write a smile, they write it fresh and make it carry psychological power.

Wrapping Up:

I hope those smiles made you smile!

Next month, I’m teaching Writing Body Language and Dialogue Cues Like a Psychologist.

Topics include:

  • Facial Expressions:  lips, eyes, chin, full face, flicker-face, micro-expressions
  • The Six Categories of Dialogue Cues
  • Kinesics:  Communicating by body movement
  • Gesture Types:  emblems, illustrators, regulators, beat gestures, affect displays
  • Avoiding clichés and writing fresh
  • Using the Four Levels of Empowering Emotion
  • A range of rhetorical devices
  • Amplifying body language and dialogue cues
  • Empowering stimulus/response patterns
  • Creating a hyphenated-run-on
  • Adding power by writing scene-themed, character-themed, emotion-themed

POST A COMMENT FOR A CHANCE TO WIN a Lecture Packet or an online course by Margie Lawson, or Tiffany Lawson Inman, from Lawson Writer’s Academy!

Online Classes offered by Lawson Writer’s Academy in April:

1.  Story Structure Safari
Instructor: Lisa Miller

2. From Madness to Method: Out-of-your-chair acting techniques to invigorate your writing and make your characters Oscar worthy!
Instructor: Tiffany Lawson Inman

3. The Dreaded Blog: Why the Heck Do You Need One—and What The Heck Do You Write?
Instructor: Tamela Buhrke

4. Writing Body Language and Dialogue Cues Like a Psychologist
Instructor: Margie Lawson

5. Fab 30: Advanced Deep Editing, A Master Class
Instructor: Margie Lawson

I’ll post the winner’s name tonight, 9PM Mountain Time.
Thank you for visiting MORE COWBELL today!

Margie Lawson —psychotherapist, editor, and international presenter—developed innovative editing systems and deep editing techniques used by writers, from newbies to NYT Bestsellers. She teaches writers how to edit for psychological power, how to hook the reader viscerally, how to create a page-turner.

Thousands of writers have learned Margie’s psychologically-based deep editing material. In the last seven years, she presented over sixty full day Master Classes for writers in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

For more information on Lawson Writer’s Academy, lecture packets, full day master classes, and the 4-day Immersion Master Class sessions offered in her Colorado mountain-top home, visit:  www.MargieLawson.com.

About Jenny Hansen

Avid seeker of "more"...More words, more creativity, More Cowbell! An extrovert who's terribly fond of silliness. Founding blogger at Writers In The Storm (http://writersinthestormblog.com). Write on!
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101 Responses to #Writing 50,000 Inimitable Smiles by Margie Lawson

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Great topic, she wrote with a sleepy smile. I need to find a good replacement for ye old “smile that doesn’t reach the eyes.” It’s overused but a good expression.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. LauraDrake says:

    Jen, thanks for the great photo of Babygirl, wresting a smile from me like a snatching a cat from a burlap sack. Okay, that sucked, but gimme a break – it’s 3:30 am.

    Thanks, Margie for the reminder. I like to think I’m a super-Margie-Grad, but I’d hate to go do a fine for trite smiles in my last novel.

    Sigh. You’re never done learning, are you?


  3. I’ve seen that smile, the you-only-think-we’ve-finished-work-for-the-day smile. The smile that precedes repetitive nods of your head until your IMC students look like bobbing head dolls. The we’re-going-to-method-act-your-scenes-and-you’ll-howl smile. It’s evil and impish and oh-so-Margie.

    Remember, Margie. We have pictures of your pee-pee dance. MALACHAI!


  4. Margie, as always, I learn from your posts. All the examples were great, but Harlan Coben always pulls me in and makes me want to know more!

    I’m off to do a find and rework my use of the word smile! Thanks.


    • Jerrie —

      Yay! Glad you enjoyed the learning opp. LOTS MORE LEARNING OPPS in my courses!

      What I shared in the blog is 1/200th of what I teach in one course.

      Just had to toss that piece on the screen. 🙂

      If you have any questions about my online courses, please ask. margie @ margielawson . com.

      Thank you!


  5. Jody Moller says:

    Oh dear. Just did a search of the current novel for the word smile. *ducks head in shame* Thank you Jenny and thank you Margie for a kick in the pants.


  6. Aww!! Look how adorable baby girl is!!!
    And wow. Glad I stopped by here first thing this morning. I am in the process of an edit and was in much need of a “this-is-how-to-express-different-smiles-smile” stuff as I pained over some expression in my WIP.
    Great post!


  7. What a fantastic post! Wow. You’re so right that the word “smile” is used so much. So is “shrugged.” That’s one I really have to look out for. And there are so many different ways to smile. Smiles mean so many different things, it’s incredible. Thanks so much for this post! You’ve made me think back on Coming Home…and cringe at how many times I probably used the word “smile” in a boring, overused, cliched way. No more!!!


  8. K.B. Owen says:

    Cute baby pic, Jenny! Look out, the boys will come sniffing around soon, LOL. Margie, love how you broke it down for us. Great examples of both trite and right! Now I’ll have to run back and check to see how often my characters are smiling. 😀 As it is, I caught a lot of sighing and raised eyebrows in my first ms, and fixed all that before sending it out for public consumption!

    We really appreciate you lending us your time and talents!


  9. Sandra Orchard says:

    Great post as always, Margie. Love this kind of inspiration first thing in the am!


    • Big Celebratory Hugs for Margie-Grad, and Immersion-Grad Sandra Orchard!

      I’m so proud of your writing success! I loved DEEP COVER, and know I’ll love recently released SHADES OF TRUTH too.



  10. Brenna Ash says:

    This was an awesome post. And honestly (hangs head in shame) one that I hadn’t really thought about. But when I read through the examples you provided and the list of ‘basic’ smiles at the beginning, what a difference a few words make. Thank you so much!


  11. Sherry Isaac says:

    Love all the examples, Margie, but… EEEEE! I’m going to see Harlen Coben this month when he speaks at the Toronto Reference Library. SQUEEEEE….! Yeah, I’m excited. Not as excited as Carole, on her way to the mountain tomorrow, but close.

    My smile for the day: I-have-a-Margie-Barbie-and-you-don’t-smile.

    Yes, that was a shameless pimp. Celebrate National Barbie Doll Day. I Want A Margie Barbie. http://bit.ly/GAmZdV


  12. Julie Glover says:

    Great post! I do find myself writing “smiled” and thinking “Really? That’s it?” I will take this advice to my WIP and do some polishing.

    As to the March Madness, OF COURSE I will vote for Rapunzel. I may be the only person on the planet who felt this way, but I did NOT like Princess Bride. Total waste of my time. Rapunzel, however, royally kicks butt!


  13. Suzan says:

    Smiling. I don’t know that people think much about smiling. That’s really cool. I’ll have to sit down and play with that idea.

    My current nemesis is “sigh.” I know there’s always other ways to say it, but every time I go back through the manuscript, I find more “sighs” or “sighed” that I can cut or change. I bought a couple of the lecture packets and have been slowly going through them as I edit. It’s tedious, but oh, so helpful.


    • Hey Suzan —

      Ah — You’re a Margie Lecture Packet grad! I bet you’re adding lots of fresh writing, and power, to your WIP. 🙂

      Keep killing those pesky sighs!


      • Suzan says:

        I wouldn’t say “grad” exactly. 😉

        I bought three, and I’ve gone through two so far. I bought them with the intention of going to one of your immersion retreats. I’m pretty sure that’ll be this year. It has helped a lot already, though. There was a lot of stuff I didn’t think about. So, that was kind of awesome. 😀


  14. I love baby-girl’s smile. It reminds me of her mama’s I’m-so-innocent-but-when-you’re-not-looking-I’m-up-to-some-mischief smile. 🙂


  15. Drat. Every time I think I’m doing well with my revisions, I go back and find that I’ve still got clinches running around the page like lost children. Today I will spend revising ALL my trite smiles.

    Thanks for the timely reminder, Margie!

    Cheers, EE


    • Hugs to Multi-Pubbed, Multi-Margie and Immersion-Grad Elizabeth —

      I bet you have lots of fresh writing in your current WIP. Just like you have amazing fresh writing in your pubbed books!

      I’m soooo proud of you and your writing!

      BLOG GUESTS — If you want to read some STELLAR WRITING — click over to my web site and click on the Pubbed Margie Grad Blog. You’ll find powerful examples from ELIZABETH ESSEX!


  16. Very helpful! I realize I could have added some punch, some personality, some pizazz to the one “smile” I wrote yesterday…

    (Insert weary, pre-caffeinated self-flagellating smile here _________.)


  17. Stacy Green says:

    Jenny, Babygirl is so cute! Thanks for that.

    And Margie, what great examples. Writing fresh is a constant challenge, but I think the smile issue is one of the trickiest for me. As I’m working on my new novel, this was a great reminder. I learn so much from the examples you choose. Thank you!


  18. Wow! Love the examples! I’m always looking for different ways to express facial emotions. I’ll definitely have to remember these!


  19. I desperately need this course. I have more smiles and nodding in my memoir than needed. I do okay with similes because they are ammo for humor writing. But expressions?

    Help me, I smiled.


  20. Fabulous post. Am now going straight to my WIP and check out my usage of the word “smile”. I can see I’ll either be taking some out, or strengthening them!

    Thanks, Margie and Jenny!


  21. Kate Wyland says:

    Love the post. Hadn’t really thought about smiles – vs nods, shrugs, etc. Now off to do a search.


  22. Thanks for the smiles Jenny and Margie! Great instruction and examples. You can bet I’m going to check the nodding heads and smiles in my W.I.P. and challenging myself to do better. Exciting!

    Love the picture of baby girl. What a sweetie-pie!


  23. And here’s a smile you never want to see — the “I’m sorry I crashed the car, Mom” smile on the face of your son. Luckily I was able to respond with the “I’m so glad you weren’t hurt” smile. (The “damn, now I have to replace the car” frown came later.)


  24. Oh, LOOOOVE the picture of the Baby Girl! Will I see her this summer? You guys are still planning your trip to the Pacific NW, right?

    You got my vote for Rapunzel. I will tweet that later when I’m back at my computer and not on iPhone.

    Fabulous examples, Margie. It’s so easy to plaster those cliches across our novels, but a clever description always stands out and makes me remember the book and the author.


  25. My favorite “The grin, when it finally came, spread slowly across his face, moving all his freckles.”

    I love the imagery here. …her mouth sounded out the words she typed and then her lips followed the path of that grin.


  26. Ah, smiles. I still have 33 of them in my current story. Now to go back and find out how many I’ve managed to turn into something beyond the basic. Thanks for the reminder, Margie.



  27. Love Baby Girl – she is adorable and I love her glowing from the inside out kind of smile. Full of life and spirit – all Jenny!!! Fahhhbulous!
    Love Margie’s post. Like many other comments, I find her use of examples such an outstanding teaching tool. I have an excellent sense going forward how to make my smiles JUMP off the page. Loved the “opens more doors than an AK47” Spectacular! LOL!


  28. Sharon says:

    Such a good thing for a writer to know. Thank you Margie.


  29. Jenny – thanks for Baby Girl’s sweet smile.
    Margie – thanks for all the other smiles that cause us to s t r e t c h our writing skills. I found them incredibly helpful!


  30. After reading her mother’s blog, Tiffany’s mouth slid up on one side. The only smile her extra-strength-kick-you-in-the-lungs cough suppressant would allow.



  31. I LOVE this lesson from Margie! I’m actually in the middle of taking her DEEP Editing course, and next month I’ll be taking Writing Body Language and Dialogue Cues Like a Psychologist. 🙂

    Thank you for hosting Margie on your blog today, Jenny! I love how she uses examples to help us PUSH our writing to the next level and expand our minds into thinking outside the box! 🙂


  32. bronjonesnz says:

    Thank you for the good reminder blog on smiles, and the lovely baby pic. Big fat smiles to Jenny and Margie and Tiffany. First-thing, three-cup-of-tea smile to you all as the morning sun comes up over the hill at Diamond Harbour, New Zealand.


  33. Sharla Rae says:

    Great topic. Sometimes writers get too smiley or have too many grins. Gets darn right annoying. 🙂 Using body language and expression with them really helps. Thanks.


  34. Jenny,
    I smiled so hard my lips disappeared. I have big teeth.
    This is not an infomercial. Margie Lawson is an incredible writing instructor. I dare you to take one of her classes and not love it!


  35. eliseinaz says:

    I came here from Margie’s current class (Deep Editing). Every lesson is packed with information I can use to make my writing stronger. I was going to take a break from classes next month, but how can I NOT take Writing Body Language and Dialogue Cues Like a Psychologist? I so need it!


  36. Coleen Patrick says:

    Great tips. I am smiling like an emoticon.


  37. Dang. She’s good. Very good. Makes you rethink every time one of your characters smiles, which I will now be doing with my rewrites. Great stuff here, thanks Jenny and Margie!


  38. Lisa Wells says:

    Crud, I have a twitching lips I need to go and empower. And probably several dozen shoulder shrugs.

    Thanks for all you teach.

    Lisa Wells


  39. Imelda Evans says:

    I LOVE this post. No surprise, there, Margie is always good value. I’m always trying to avoid the cliche, but this is one I hadn’t given much thought to. Off to check the WIP for soggy, ineffective smiles and replace them with dazzling ones, bright enough to illuminate a football stadium (or something!). Thanks ladies, for sharing.


  40. Carrie says:

    I’ve never really thought of how I write my smiles…now I want to go back through all my pieces and re-write them 🙂

    thanks for the tips!


  41. Kate Arms-Roberts says:

    I’m glad to see I’m not the only person who went straight from this post to a WIP and blanched at the results of a search on “smile.” But, armed with the inspiration in this post, I found a this-is-a-problem-I-can-fix smile creeping onto my face eventually.

    Thank you, Margie and Jenny.



  42. What a great post, Margie. I love a quick refresher. I usually mark my cliche expressions while writing my ideas down and go back and change them while editing. Now that I’m starting to get in the habit of writing fresh I’m trying to get everyone in my writers group to do the same. I hope to get you some more students. I have learned so much from you and look forward to learning more. 😀



  43. Ally Cowee says:

    Super advice as usual Margie! You are the master!


  44. Terri P says:

    No matter how many times I read a Margie post, my brain always goes “YES!”

    Great refresher!



  45. Hi Jenny 🙂

    Popping in to say hey-oh to Margie. Margie makes me smile 50,000 ways. Make that 50 million 🙂

    I actually used this trick of Margie’s on my last whole-book edit. Did a “find” feature for “smile” and make them all fresh, fresh, fresh. So much fun!

    All best,



    Woohoo! Big day on MORE COWBELL!

    I had fun with you all. Thanks for sharing all your FRESH SMILES!

    I used RANDOM.ORG to select the WINNER. And — THE WINNER IS: JULIE GLOVER!


    Julie — You win an online class! Please email me and I’ll get you enrolled. margie @ margielawson . com.

    BLOG GUESTS: If you have any questions about my online courses, lecture packets, or Immersion Master Classes in Colorado, please email me: margie @ margielawson . com.

    THANK YOU AGAIN — to inimitable JENNY HANSEN! I appreciate Jenny – and MORE COWBELL!



    • Jenny Hansen says:

      WOW! Random.org likes Julie this week!!! Congratulations to you, Miz Julie. 🙂

      Margie, thank you so much for this gorgeous blog, and all your hard work! More Cowbell and the Cowbell Posse COMPLETELY appreciate you!!!


      • Julie Glover says:

        Good heavens! I totally missed this. I couldn’t imagine another win. I’m buying lottery tickets this month, people! Seriously, I am thrilled to get Margie & Tiffany’s expertise. My novel is going to SHINE! I’ll be shaking my cowbell like crazy. 🙂


  47. Karen McFarland says:

    Oh bummer. I mean yay for Julie! But bummer that I just fingured out how to post a comment and out fox wordpress. I love the picture of baby girl Jenny! She’s adorable! But I wish I could have posted a comment earlier. I just found out a new way to break the code. LOL! I keep missing out. Well not anymore! Ha!

    Thank you Margie for those awesome examples. I need to check out that class. And thank you Jenny for being such a wonderful host. 🙂


  48. Monique Liddle says:

    Jenny – Thank you so much for introducing me (and your many readers) to these fantastic guest bloggers. In this post, to write, “She smiled shyly,” in more ways than the writing courses I took in high school, college, and the additional self-teaching books I have read thus far. Brilliant!

    Margie – I look forward to taking one or more of your courses that you offer through your online Academy. I haven’t taken any course like this and am not quite sure what to expect. Therefore, I will explore your web site and, if you don’t mind, contact you with any extra questions. My enthusiasm for your courses is almost equal to when I am anticipating my boyfriend to visit me for our first whole weekend together! (Is this the type of emotive description that you are hoping we/I will learn?)


  49. What a brilliant post!! “Thank you Margie and Jenny,” she said with an I’ve just tucked an awesome tidbit in my back pocket smile!! XO


  50. Karen Rought says:

    Wow! This is actually exactly what I needed to read. I’m off to go fix my smiles now. 🙂


  51. Fantastic! I’ve been fascinated by micro-expressions since the TV show, Lie to Me—may it rest in peace. I’m bookmarking this and will be eagerly awaiting the body image post. 🙂 Thanks, Margie and Jenny!


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  53. My characters love to smile. They smile their ordinary smiles all over the place. Almost on every page, they smile. (They also shrug their ordinary shrugs and frown their ordinary frowns.) Thank you for reminding me I still have so much important work to do! Loved your post!


  54. Hi Margie,
    My written smiles have definitely gotten fresher since taking your courses.
    And that makes me smile!
    Barb Britton


  55. alberta says:

    That was so good – that smile when they are not listening ?- hate that – had quick look at those courses and will have to go back to clarify that list of what one needs for the deep editing – maybe I need to do scads of other stuff first – will be back – they look good and if this blog is anything to go by they are good

    thanks Jenny for this lady


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      You are very, very welcome Alberta! I love Margie…she’s the best. 🙂 Incidentally, I’m giving away a Margie packet to subscribers for my Life List Club Milestone party tomorrow!


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