When we’re writing a novel, it’s inevitable that some bad habits are gonna kick in. It’s universal. I do it too.
These are writing tics, and we all have them.
If you aren’t careful, your novel will quickly become an explosion of sighs, eye-rolls, or hearts beating out of chests.
It’s so important to vary up the gestures and reactions to dramatic events. Here are some very common generic reaction crutches:
- Looking, staring, and meaningful glances
- Eyes clenching shut
- Staring at the ceiling/sky
- Dramatic pauses
- Hearts pounding
- Crying/eyes welling with tears
- Dramatic exhortations (“Ugh!” “Blech!” “God!”)
- Stomachs lurching
- Throats catching
- Bodies going rigid
- Hands clutching into fists
- Faces going white
- Clearing throats
- Meaningless misunderstandings (e.g. Character A: “X!”, Character B: “What did you just say?!”, Character A: “I said X and am literally repeating what the reader just read!”)
A good rule of thumb: Do your best to use the gestures from this list no more than two or three times throughout the entire novel.
Yep. You heard me right. Three sighs for the whole novel. That’s it. Even better if it’s only one and it really matters that it’s a sigh.
I think it’s fine to use a unique gesture more often than this, like Dolores Umbridge’s “Hem, hem.” That feels more like a personality trait. Just use the generic ones as infrequently as possible.
What do you instead? Show your protagonist processing what’s happening. Infuse their emotions into the voice. Give them ways of reacting to things that draw upon their surroundings and their unique personality. Give them individual ways of reacting.
It’s far more interesting and you won’t make your reader sigh, eyeroll, and say a dramatic exhortation in the process.
See any crutches I missed? Take to the comments!
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Art: Chez Tortoni by Édouard Manet
Nathan Bransford says
I wrote this post because I am massively guilty of this.
That helps me feel a little bit better. But, I think I do all of these things in chapter two alone. My new manta will be 3 SIGHS PER BOOK, COFFEY!
Neil Larkins says
ME TOO! “Oh, well,” he shrugs while rolling his eyes. Stop!
Judythe Guarnera says
Me, too, Nathan. Is it okay if I reprint your column in SLO NightWriters newsletter if I cite you as the source–with a link?
Jeffrey Ricker says
My students are workshopping their first stories in my class, and I’m going to share this list with them this week. Thanks.
Why, Nathan. WHY?
A crutch I always use: shaking or nodding heads.
James Madara says
JOHN T. SHEA says
In “Railsea” China Mieville replaced every “and” with an ampersand (&). I think I’ll replace all my character reactions with emojis. What could possibly go wrong?
PS. I HAVE 20 SIGHS.
David Kubicek says
A beta reader for one of my novels once commented that my main character “licked his lips” a lot. I don’t think I’ve written about a character licking his or her lips since.
Gonna use the word doc search feature on these. My scores will not be good. Others…maybe: blinking, gagging, snorting, shifting his weight, clenching his jaw, shaking his head, furrowing his brows, mouth twitching, squinting, hiding a smile.
Teresa Robeson says
“Swallowing hard” is my pet peeves of crutches. (And I personally use “sigh” and “roll eyes” more than I should.)
Egad! Well, I was looking for a way to cut another 25K words…
Karen Skedgell-Ghiban says
Heart racing/pounding is one of mine, and, apparently winking. My characters wink too much. *wink*
Heather Campsall says
He stood rooted to the floor? heehee
I feel like this is half my novel! Anymore advice on how to show and not tell?
Cathy Cade says
“Her heart in her throat.” I’ve stopped myself using this several times ‘cos it’s a lee-eetle too literal-sounding. I imagine a critiquer I once had on Scribophile writing – “Really?” (He didn’t like my terrier skipping to the front door.)
The trouble is, the phrase does describe the feeling well and it’s difficult to reword that feeling concisely
My characters sigh and smile rather a lot.
Talking about literal things, I always get a weird picture if someone says something like ‘his eyes wandered around the room seeking her’.