An important step in my editing routine is this: rooting out repeated instances of characters' sighs, frowns, smiles, head nods, head shaking, and (yes!) long, steadying breaths before acting or speaking. Repetition is often a sign of flabby writing, and this particular kind has cropped up often enough in my own work to earn itself a nickname: the bobblehead syndrome.
Characters who are limited to just a handful of generic responses become less real and less relatable for the reader. In effect, the flabbier the writing, the flatter the characters are. Therefore, I've trained myself to think of vague emotional indicators as placeholders in a manuscript. They're acceptable in early drafts, but only until I can substitute a more detailed, more telling, and more authentic description of what the character is feeling inside, or how it appears to a point-of-view observer. Here are some examples from recent stories:
First draft: “I can see where this is going,” she said, frowning. “But I'm not going to break the law."
Edited: “I see.” Her lips and brows contracted as though pulled tight by the same string as her old-timey purse. “But don't think for one moment that I'll break the law to protect you."
(Frowns are so generic. This is a much more vivid and revealing description of her expression.)
First draft: He drew and expelled a long breath before speaking. “Well! It appears we are about to have a first contact situation.”
Edited: “Well!” he declared after a beat. “It appears we are about to have a first contact situation.”
(This character is simply buying time to process an unexpected development. Save the long breath for a high-stakes pivotal moment, such as when a character is about to commit perjury on the stand.)
First draft: She shook her head. “Absolutely not!”
Edited: "What? No! Absolutely not!"
(Unnecessary repetition here, a silent response followed by an identical verbal one. Check to see which one is more effective in the given situation, then go with it.)
Sometimes a simple frown or nod is a character's most authentic reaction. When it's not, I've found it helpful to have an "emotional thesaurus" on hand. Here's the recipe:
Collect any apt or well-worded character responses that you come across in your reading. Classify them according to the emotion being felt. Add your own original phrases to the list as well. (I've mined drafts of earlier stories for spot-on descriptions that came to me in moments of inspiration.) Then, while editing, dip into it for interesting emotional reactions that will strengthen your writing as they reveal the various dimensions of your characters. Your readers will appreciate it.
Arlene F. Marks
Arlene F. Marks took up writing at the age of 6 and is now helplessly addicted to it. Since retiring from the classroom, she has completely surrendered to her muse, authoring two multi-volume literacy programs and a writing manual, along with a great deal of imaginative fiction. Her current project is Sic Transit Terra, a series of space opera novels set at the turn of the 25th century that she describes as "Dynasty meets Star Trek with a side order of 24". Book 5, The Cockroach Crusade, will be coming out later this year from EDGE Publishing. Arlene lives and writes in the beautiful Georgian Bay area of Ontario.
Arlene's website: www.thewritersnest.ca
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