Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Overused Actions in Novels

The air is warm and azaleas are in bloom, so I guess it's time to wipe winter grime from the swing and spend more time on the porch. Not to be rude, but I have to begin with a bit of a complaint.

As a reader, these irritate me because it constantly catches my attention. As a writer, it annoys me because my wonderful crit partners won't allow me to get away with such boring and cliche actions. It's lazy, unimaginative writing and yet I see each in newly published novels. Quite often at times, and not only in the overall story, but in each chapter.

Actions I strongly encourage authors to avoid using  in their novels:  


I understand a sigh is an excellent way to convey boredom, impatience, frustration, etc, but they're highly overused and they contribute little to the scene. Why use this:  

Careen and Suellen stood in the field and clenched wads of ruined cotton. "Scarlett, what are we doing to do?"  

Scarlett sighed. "I'll think about it tomorrow."

When this works better.  

Careen and Suellen stood in the field and clenched wads of ruined cotton. "Scarlett, what are we going to do?"  

Scarlett wiped sweat from her cheek and dropped the lost profit on the ground. "I'll think about it tomorrow."

Instead of relying on a cliche response, having Scarlett wipe sweat from her cheek shows she spent time in the field under the hot sun only to find ruined cotton--and hopes.


Seriously? Everyone blinks. It's required, so why point it out?

Suellen threw the wad of ruined cotton at Scarlett. "Who are you going to marry this time to fix this little problem?"

Scarlett blinked. "Well, there's Rhett, and your old Mr. Kennedy."

A blinking response fails to show Scarlett's grit and determination, or the bitter rivalry between the sisters.

Running hand through hair

In the first draft of my second novel, one character constantly ran/raked his hand through his hair. It's the same as with sighing and blinking. It's overused and doesn't contribute to the story. Number of times that character runs his hand through his hair after I make revisions? Zero.

Chuckling at inappropriate times

In the past two novels I read, several characters chuckled to himself or herself during tense or sad moments. I've seen the same in other novels as well. It doesn't work.  

Scarlett fell to her knees beside Ashley. "Oh, Ashley. Melly's dying." 

Ashley stared at Melly's lone glove and chuckled to himself. Melly was always losing things.

It's one thing when a character is stressed and laughs inappropriately to deal with that stress, but that wasn't the case in those novels and it totally broke the tension.  

Crossing arms

It's an acceptable action to use when a character is feeling vulnerable and wants to create distance, but it, too, is used (and overused) as a quick action beat. Employ it once, maybe twice in a novel and at the most appropriate times.  

Wringing hands

No one does this. Don't have your character do it either.

And last (for now): saying a character has a row of even white teeth. It's a given that in every novel, all the character have an even row of white teeth, and yet, there is not a dentist or orthodontist in the storybook town.

I'd originally posted this in a Facebook status, and a non-author friend commented that these things don't bother him, that he usually glosses over those parts. That's part of my point. These actions are so unimportant, the reader just ignores them. Far better to use actions that enhance the scene, the tension, and the story.

That's my rant for the day. Now turn those lemons into lemonade.

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