That Thing You Do

This kitten is winking. Your argument is invalid.

Reading Julie Glover’s I’m Awesome! I’m Awful! Epiphanies While Editing post this morning, I was struck in particular by this passage:

  • I apparently think people wink a lot. My characters need to tone down their eye issues.
  • I used several rhetorical devices without realizing it (e.g., anaphora), and adding a few more helped with pacing and intensity.

After I was done laughing, I started thinking about the things I tend to use a lot in my prose — either things I’ve caught myself, or things other people have pointed out to me. Since I’ve been doing a lot of editing lately, here’s what I like:

1) Characters nonchalantly examining their fingernails to show how unconcerned they are with the situation they’re in. I’m so fond of this, apparently, that one of my readers said he expected it during a certain scene and wondered why it wasn’t there. Apparently that’s my shorthand for “I could kill you right now, but you’re not worth the trouble.”

2) The desk confrontation! Character A sits behind his desk, clearly plotting something. Character B bursts in and demands ALL RIGHT SUNNY JIM WHAT IS ALL THIS MONKEYSHINES. They then spar verbally until someone gets mad and leaves. I know, this is awfully specific, but it shows up a lot — so much so that I try to weed it out when I see it coming. I’ll set it somewhere fresh and inventive, like an underground parking garage, or… hmm. You know, forget it.

3) The Inept Bad-Ass. I love characters who are apparently hapless, but have some inner reserve or talent that overcomes their generalized lameness. I’m also fond of “Fool” archetypes who are too clueless to know any better, but get through the story through a combination of blind luck and the charity of others. Fortunately, I don’t usually make that guy the protagonist.

4) Characters raising one eyebrow in consternation or amusement. I’ve chopped that out so many times. No one wants a book of people doing Spock imitations. I also write people “barking” laughter a lot, which I suppose we could all live without. Woof woof!

In sufficient volume, these become risible cliches. You can’t read a discussion about Jordan’s Wheel of Time without someone mentioning the constant tugging of braids and adjusting of articles of clothing. I’ve never read WoT, but apparently it’s legendary for this kind of thing.

On the other hand, these personal chestnuts can add voice and character. Stephen King’s characters, for example, tend to fall back on a library of homespun Maine aphorisms and turns of phrase. Chuck Wendig’s characters lay out some of the most blistering and inventive profanity the written word has ever seen. Predictable? Maybe. But not necessaraily evil.

The key, I imagine, is whether these elements derive from character and contribute to story, or whether they’re filler because you can’t think of anything better to write. If the former, keep them around. If the latter, jettison them without mercy.

So what’s “that thing you do?” Any confessions you’d like to share?

  • Joni

    For what it’s worth, “barking laughter” evokes something very specific when I read it. It’s an intense, almost involuntary laughter reaction. I don’t think it happens all that often in the real world, so it shouldn’t be overdone in stories, but I also can’t think of a good alternative to describe that specific reaction.

    Otherwise, I’m right there with you. Even in my limited blog writing I have to edit for certain things that I tend to use too often.

    • You make a good point. I usually keep the barking in anyway. Thanks for the comment, Joni.

  • Thanks for the shout-out! I think we all have our go-to expressions or gestures. In the first draft, I think you just go with the flow and not worry about it. Then later, as you say, you can decide if they contribute to or detract from the story.
    Laughed out loud at “Spock impressions” one. 🙂

  • Matt S.

    Yeah, I rely on eye descriptions way too much. I’ve also had at least three situations in which two characters get lost, and one sarcastically says to the other, “What now, Meriwether?” I don’t even know that much about the Lewis and Clark expedition!

    • I like that reference. I’m totally stealing it!

      So do your characters have eyes like stars of creamy jade?

      • Matt S.

        No, but they do glare, glance, flick, and widen quite a bit. Irritatingly so, I expect.

  • Hmm. I’m not sure about my most recent WIP, but I know in the past I’ve had characters who like to raise/arch their eyebrows. I also have to consciously not describe people’s eye and hair color, as that quickly became my go-to description set for every character my protagonist came across. Whoops.

    • I know, I do the same thing myself, Ava. I like physically describing my characters, and it’s hard not to go overboard.