Note: The following is a guest post from KM Weiland. An excellent writer who does a good job of getting under the hood of the writing process to explain the mechanics of the writing engine.
True story. My critique partners and editors are always all over me for overusing the words “breathe” and “look.” Like any normal, realistic human being, my characters are constantly breathing and looking. Because aren’t these expressions the subtle indications by which you show what your character is feeling and thinking?
The problem, as I well know, is that these things don’t need to be indicated in every single dialogue beat. Not only do they get repetitious fast but they’re not even all that great a way to accomplish what it is I’m trying to accomplish.
We live in a tremendously visual society. Movies are the predominant form of storytelling, and we’re all influenced by them. When I’m writing along, I’m seeing my characters acting out the story in my head as if it were a movie playing out on a screen. And believe me, they are fantastic actors! They all deserve Oscars, in my opinion. They can convey untold depth and subtext with the single raise of an eyebrow, an influx of breath, a steely look in their eyes. It’s poetry.
That’s awesome for the movies. The problem is we’re not writing for the movies.
We’re writing novels, and that sigh that says so much in a movie isn’t nearly as effective when it’s a word on the page. That ineffable expression you see in your character’s eyes that moves you so much is just that: ineffable, indescribable.
That’s sad. I find that sad anyway, because I love the visual power that an expression has for conveying subtext. But it’s time we just flat-out realize that “looked” and “breathed” are just not a particularly effective technique for novelists. When I go through my manuscripts and delete most of the references to my characters taking a breath or looking someone in the eye, my prose very rarely loses anything (except repetition).
Do this and it will force you to find new—and better—and more pertinent—ways to describe what your character is feeling and thinking. Sometimes it just makes your dialogue stand on its own, sometimes the character’s expression is already plain from the context, and sometimes you have to dig deeper to find a more original way to evoke your character’s expressions.