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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Your story begins with beautiful, lyrical prose. You engage the reader's interest with your scenic descriptions, the protagonist's wounded backstory, and a hook that makes the reader hungry for more. Then it's time for someone to speak, and you feel like your characters can't string two words together.
Some authors struggle with dialogue, and if that's something you can relate to, I'll be offering a few tips to help you put just the right words in your character's mouths.
First, consider your genre, decade and setting. If your novel is set in a Dystopian future on an imaginary planet, make sure your characters' vernacular reflects that. I am also not a fan of filtering words or censoring my characters. Readers want to relate to the heroes in the story, and if someone stubs their toe on a coffee table really hard, you bet they are going to share an expletive or two.
You also have to remember to add the bits and pieces of real life that would naturally interrupt a conversation. No one speaks in full paragraphs without interruption. The phone will ring, thunder might boom, or that pot of boiling water on the stove will need tending.
Give your characters a voice that will be hard for the reader to forget. Make them as real as possible. Admissions of love, for example, should sound realistic and not contrived or forced, or worse, cliched.
I like to write my characters as if I were directing them in a movie. Remember to add expressions, hand movements, or even music. During a heated argument, a person doesn't stand stoically. They pace, they stuff their hands in their pockets and do everything human. Add emotion to your dialogue accordingly. A death-bed scene will include crying. A celebration will consist of shouts of joy or contagious laughter.
Dialogue is every bit important as the rest of the book. Passion is key; realism too. Your readers will want to relate to your characters (or wish that sexy protagonist was speaking directly to them.) As the reader, if you feel like you're eavesdropping on something juicy and wonderful, then the author did a great job.
When all is said and done, read it out loud to yourself to hear the conversation just how the reader might interpret it in their mind.
Last, but never least, be bold. If you're unafraid of what your characters will say next, your readers will no longer think of them as imaginary people, but simply someone they would love to befriend. That's a great compliment to any writer.
Barbara Avon is a multi-genre author. She is also the author of three children’s books. Her books have been received favourably across the board, entertaining readers with an almost “movie-like” quality. Barbara has written since she was young, pursuing her dreams and vowing to write for as long as she can. She has worked at several different media publications and will continue to publish novels until “her pen runs dry.” She believes in paying it forward, and you can read about this belief as the theme is given voice in most of her books. Avon lives in Ontario, Canada with her husband, Danny, their tarantula, Betsy, and their houseplant, “Romeo.”
You can find her engaging in the Writing Community conversation on Twitter: @barb_avon
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