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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One of my most favourite things to write is emotionally powerful scenes. They hit the reader square in the heart (or head), shed a tear or share a laugh, and perhaps allow them to make discoveries they hadn’t realized previously. But actually creating those moments is more than just a romantic kiss beneath a full moon or an epic battle between good and evil. It’s the little moments that build up to the climax that the reader will appreciate in the end.
If you are a writer or have ever dabbled in it, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the “show, don’t tell” phrase before. But for penning a scene that is supposed to drive into your reader’s heart, you can only talk about ‘the slow flow of water leaking from his eyes,’ and ‘her heart beating wildly in her chest’ so much. When I am writing out this special moment for the first time, I get everything out - all the character movements, bad jokes, small nuances and subtleties: fingertips touching, a shift in body language, batted eyelashes. When the word well runs empty, that’s when the magic begins.
While reading over the verbal vomit I’ve thrown onto your page, imagine it as a movie scene. We all have ‘that one part in that one movie’ where we were enthralled with everything that was happening: the music, the words, the setting all seemed to flow in perfect harmony. I want to have that same effect on the reader, and so I play it out as such in words. For example, if you have a pair of friends that find out they’re related to one another when they thought they had no family left, tell us about how excited they are, about the small jig they dance around each other. Show us the choked up voices, the small hope growing over the disbelief, the laughter of relief that they aren’t alone anymore. Make them more human in that window of time than they have been in the entire story, and they will breathe life into everything else that happens, regardless if it’s related or not.
On the flip side of this ‘show and tell,’ try not to use words that you’re not familiar with. If a stranger walked up to you and asked you to explain that word to them, and you’re not really sure how it might be best to leave it out or find an alternative. Googling ‘100 of the most beautiful words’ may bring about inspiration, but who would know what moiety meant without looking it up? Being poetic and having creative license as a writer allows us to literally make up things that have their own meaning, one you would presumably remember better than something you pulled off of a website. Take the time to scout inspiration, but don’t forget that this is your story, not the internet’s.
Ashley J. Gallaher-Pollard
When Ashley was in elementary school, she fell heavily in love with reading, mostly mythology and fiction. At eleven, she penned her first story about a fearless princess and a tyrant king. Now, she's writing about gifted women and the power of family. She has written numerous poems, a handful of them published through Young Writers of Canada and the contests they hold, and several flash fictions on personal characters that she has developed over the years. Her favourite things to read and write are fantasy adventure and science fiction, and sometimes she dabbles in romance. Her current project is War Wine (working title), a mature high fantasy novel that covers familial bonds, love of all kinds, and friendship.
Word Crafting is a blog to help writers strive for excellence. If you would like to be a guest blogger, pitch me an idea.