Monday, September 30, 2013

My Biggest Crutch - Overused Gestures

I'm going through a very gruel editing process right now, which is why I've neglected visiting everyone's blogs. I promise to get back on track. But this editing business is cruel. I have a lot of bad habits.

Many of you know I'm a big people watcher. As far as how that translates into my writing, I'm finding that each book I write is filled with a particular set of gestures that I tend to overuse. I've also been beta reading a lot, and I find that I'm not alone.

Here are my big gesture crutches:

1) Smiled. I will use the FIND feature in Word, and I'm always aghast at how many times my characters smile. It's crazy. I will try to use other ways to describe a smile, or maybe use a synonym like grin or smirk. If you are a true writing master, you can also craft proper dialog that conveys that a character is smiling.

2) Nods and Head Shakes. Sometimes, I feel like my characters have fits of Tourette's or something. Lots of head movement all over the place. Again, I hunt them down and see if I can cut them. The best thing I can do is to write excellent dialog that makes it easy for the reader to imagine a character nodding or shaking their head. Most often, I find that I'm being redundant:

James nodded. "Yes, I'll drive you to the airport."

Nodded is not necessary in the example above. He already says "yes."

3) Gazes and Glances. When I find a bunch of gazes and glances, it seems like my characters have ADD. They just can't FOCUS. If it's my POV character that's doing all the gazing and glancing, I'll cut it and just describe what the heck they're looking at.

James gazed at the swings swaying on the empty playground.
The swings swayed on the empty playground.

By directly showing you what James sees, I'm actually removing a filter between the reader and the character. As I said before, expertly crafted dialog can also help you do away with these overused gestures, including gazed and glanced.

4) Eyebrow Rumba. Do your characters' eyebrows furrow, raise, or draw together? Mine do. I try to rework as many of them as I can. I also stick this gesture to one character so it becomes part of characterization.

5) Eyes Narrow and Widen. I don't use "widen" as much as "narrowed." Lots of my characters get pissed and their eyes tend to narrow. If I find that I'm using this gesture as a crutch, I'll rework some scenes. Often, I'll just cut it and write good dialog and action that helps the reader imagine the eyes narrowing.

James found the body of his beloved on the floor, the crimson pool growing beneath his fiance's limp body. "They will pay." He pounded his fist through the drywall. "I will kill them all."

With this very intense scene, doesn't it seem anti-climatic to even include some kind of gesture here? At finding his woman dead, his eyes narrowing or brows furrowing don't do it justice. The scene itself, along with the dialog, gives the readers the freedom to use their own imagination to construct the visuals. No need to spoon feed your readers!

Like all crutches, mine change. And there's a bazillion more overused gestures out there. Many of mine also include:

arms crossed
teeth clenched
deep exhale

The key to gestures is to make sure you're not overusing them. Also, personalize a few of them. Maybe one character always strokes his beard when he's thinking. It takes more skill to write dialog that lends itself to the reader imaging the proper gestures during a scene. Like my example above of James finding his fiance dead. Obviously, we can picture him very angry and intense.

I bet his brows are furrowed.

* Thanks for all your kind words last week. Snoopy passed away very peacefully in my arms at the vet's office. I held held his blanket-wrapped body, and I felt him take his last breath. When his muscles relaxed, and the doctor verified he was gone, I felt relieved.

Sad, sure. But I was relieved that Snoopy was no longer in pain. When I came home, my 7 month old puppy jumped on me (a habit I'm working to correct), and reminded me that she needed supper.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

So sorry about Snoopy. It's hard to let them go.
I overuse a lot of those. Sometimes you have to get real creative to find another way to express those gestures. I think there was a lot of fist slamming in my latest.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

I am definitely guilty of numbers 1, 2, and 3. I try hard not to worry about that stuff in the first couple of drafts, although I do try to catch them when I can. :)

Good luck with your edits!

Jay Noel said...

Alex: Thanks, man. It's a lot more work find another way.

Madeline: I wrote most of one manuscript during NaNo last year. It's pretty ugly. And there's over 400 pages of ugly!

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

So sorry for your loss. Your list of overused gestures is hauntingly familiar. Sigh. Great minds think alike.

Melanie Schulz said...

That list feels very familiar.

Jay Noel said...

Michael: Thanks again. Yes...we all have to purge these overused gestures.

Melanie: Hunt and destroy!

mooderino said...

Physical gestures are something new writers are encouraged to use rather than stating emotions and reactions, but they don't tell you how to get beyond using the same movements over and over. Watching actors in powerful scenes always helps me find new things to say about familiar emotions.


Jay Noel said...

Moody: Right. We always tell new writers to show and not tell. But it can get ree-donk-u-lous when the gestures and description reads like stage direction. Gestures have to help tell the story, and do it an interesting and engaging way.

M Pax said...

It takes practice. I just finished grueling edits. I think I caught knotted brow a lot.

Robin said...

Thank goodness for editing and beta readers... and the search function in Word. Makes you truly appreciate the writers of yesterday who wrote everything longhand or on a typewriter.

Julie Dao said...

I do the same thing with "smiled" and "nodded"... I'm scared to do a Ctrl+F for every mention of those two.

D.G. Hudson said...

I have what someone called a 'watch-list' of words that I overuse.

A mentor advised me to run my work through the find/replace function to catch the multiples. So I made a list, and was surprised at how often I sprinkled one of those watchwords into the prose.
Good luck.

Jay Noel said...

Mary: My brow is knotting right now. Or maybe it's knitting.

Robin: Yes. Thank Vishnu for all of that. Can't imagine writing on a typewriter...and that's how I learned keyboarding.

Julie: I counted 42 smiles in a 100K novel of mine once. I slashed it down to less than 12.

D.G. My watch list would continually change. It's very weird.

Christine Rains said...

My sympathies to you and your family for Snoopy.

I tend to overuse certain gestures like "smiled" a lot too. I also say "just" too much. I have to go through and delete 99% of them or else it's nearly every other sentence.

Jay Noel said...

Christine: Thank you. And yes, I had an issue with "just" a couple of years ago. I hacked 99% of them too. Maybe I'm just a needy writer, but my crutches tend to evolve with every project.

Tammy Theriault said...

i love it! the twitches, right??

DEZMOND said...

imagine me when I have to translate those endlessly repetitive things :) My fingers often type by themselves without my brain doing any work....

Emily R. King said...

Thorough list! I like individualizing gestures too. Everyone has a nervous tick!

Tony Laplume said...

Sometimes this can be a good thing. I'm positively giddy every time Dave Barry describes one of his characters as trotting. It's a signature.

Samantha May said...

*Sigh* Mine shrug a lot.

I'm glad that there is relief for you and your family. Losing a pet is tough, but at least there is peace now.

Teresa Coltrin said...

I'm so sorry about Snoopy. I'm like you though, I don't want them to suffer.

Editing is PAINFUL!

David P. King said...

Yep. Pretty much guilty in all of these ... in the first draft, anyway. That's why editing is still my favorite part of the process. :)

Carol Kilgore said...

I do the same thing - with the same gestures. Then I try hard not to use them - and end up overusing something else. I'm guessing this is the kind of thing we'll continue to fight - just with different words.

So sorry to hear about Snoopy. But he's all happy and wagging now. And he'll be waiting for you. So happy you have a new puppy. You'll get each other through Snoopy's passing.

Jay Noel said...

Tammy: That's me with too much caffeine in my system.

Dez: Mine too. But that's what first drafts are for.

Emily: Right. It makes it a part of characterization

Tony: I never noticed that!!!

Jay Noel said...

Samantha: Mine sigh. Lol. And thanks

Teresa: Thanks. I felt Snoopy's tension just disappear when he passed. It gave me comfort. And editing is painful.

David: I just have to throw it all down. But then I shake my head when going through my first draft. (Lol. Get it? Shake my head? Hahahaha)

Carol: It's like trying to get cozy with a blanket that's too short! And thanks so much. Snoopy is in doggie heaven with our other dog, Ilsa, who passed in 2010

River Fairchild said...

OMG...I'm dying laughing over here, shaking my head, nodding, my brows furrowed... I recognize all these things in my writing (you either forgot "shrug" or only my characters shrug all the time).
Thanks for your encouraging words over on my blog. I've been terrible about getting back to commenting or blogging so far.

Nick Wilford said...

Sorry about Snoopy, but glad he's no longer in pain.

My characters definitely do a lot of eyebrow movement. It's one thing to think you're doing some good telling, but another to overdo it to the point of being ineffective. Still trying to nail the dialogue thing!

The Desert Rocks said...

I beat myself up for not using enough gestures but I do give a general feeling of sadness, anger or fear. Maybe I have read too many books where they leave it up to the reader or the screen writer to interpret it. LOL Great post.

Mr. Shife said...

Editing is not fun. I just went through it recently and like you I was amazed at my writing style and how lazy I was. Also, about the habits I've formed over the years. Best of luck with everything. And my belated condolences about Snoopy. Always tough having to let go of a beloved pet.

farawayeyes said...

This is something I never thought about, although my MC does have a 'signsture' gesture that I intentionally included. Now, I have something else I need to check for.

Also, I haven't been out and about for awhile, so I didn't know about Snoopy. So sorry to hear this.

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