This post is part of the Write With Me series. For more like this, check out the writing your novel page.
For this installment of the series, we’re talking action: no, not high-flying combat action, but rather things like non-verbal cues and character tics.
The Importance of Precision
In keeping with the idea that art imitates life, it follows that we as writers incorporate things like non-verbal cues (body language) into our writing. Doing so allows us to better adhere to the “show, don’t tell” mantra, and also introduces a subtlety that many of us take for granted during our day-to-day interactions with those around us.
That subtlety, of course, is the ability to look at the person you’re speaking with and have a feel for things like:
- How are they feeling generally?
- How are they feeling about what they’re saying or hearing?
- Are they being truthful in their statements?
- Do they believe what they’re being told?
- Are they distracted or are they focused on the conversation?
The list could go on, but I think the above illustrates the point that though we as people can pick up on these visual or auditory clues that help us answer those questions, our readers don’t have the same opportunity unless we paint that picture for them.
Consider the scene below:
He smiled. “I was hoping you’d come.”
“Of course.” She nodded as she stepped forward. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Now compare that to:
His eyes found the floor. “I was hoping you’d come.”
“Of course.” She clasped her hands behind her back. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
There are two very different feels there, right? Those simple differences in the character action-reaction chain changed the feel of the entire interaction. This is the kind of context we as writers provide to readers, the sort of thing that frames their understanding of characters as individuals, the relationships between them, and the relationships all of these have with plot and setting.
Above all else, this should emphasize the importance of being deliberate when having our characters take action of any kind.
Our first examples also show exactly why it’s critical that we minimize general actions that anyone could perform when writing our scenes. Let’s take a look at the below and try to discern why it just seems… flat.
“It’ll be fine.” I smiled, but I knew the words fell on deaf ears.
He nodded. “I know. It’s just…” The words never came.
“Come on,” I stood. “You’ll feel better if you get outside for a bit.”
“Right.” He smiled as she stood.
A keen reader will notice a few things about this scene and this blog post as a whole so far. Of the ten character actions included to this point, five of them have been either simple smiles or nods of the head.
These stock actions run amok in early drafts everywhere, and every use of them leaves a lot of room for strengthening. Though humans do smile and nod an awful lot in our day-to-day lives, as writers it’s our job to paint a picture with as much depth as possible in as few words as possible (word economy, remember?).
So how do we get there? Stronger, more precise action. Let’s explore the same scene again, but with some changes based on this idea.
“It’ll be fine.” I thumbed a tear from beneath his eye.
He sniffled, bowed his head. “I know. It’s just…” The words never came.
“Come on.” I took him by the hand as I stood. “You’ll feel better if you get outside for a bit.”
“Right.” The corner of his lip turned upward as he let me pull him up.
Though the above does use sixteen more words to cover the same amount of dialogue, let’s evaluate what those sixteen additional words buy us.
First of all, we get a better peek into the depth of the relationship these two characters share. When our POV character thumbs a tear from beneath his friend’s eye, we get a feel for the degree of intimacy in the relationship.
Making use of sniffling as an audio cue to readers also hints at the possibility that our troubled character may have been crying earlier—a good use of a show rather than a tell. Not only that, but the bowing of his head conveys a sort of resignation or defeat, which does away for the need for the tell-y commentary in the first example: namely, that our POV character’s words are falling on deaf ears.
When our POV character takes his friend by the hand, we have a further demonstration of intimacy, and we get a sense that our POV is taking on a leadership role in the relationship here.
Then, of course, there’s the upward turn of the lip for our troubled friend. Yes, that is just a way around using the verb “to smile,” but it’s more precise and shows that this character’s outlook is changing incrementally, rather than all at once.
Lastly, we have the inclusion of the phrase “he let me pull him up.” The inclusion of the word “let” here implies some degree of consent on the part of the troubled friend, which demonstrates a perceived willingness on his part to make a change to feel better.
Whew. Those sixteen extra words bought us a lot more than falling back on the old smile-and-nod factory.
Using more precise action language isn’t the only way to improve our use of character action, however. Let’s explore what else can be done to keep those actions and reactions fresh.
When attempting to make use of more economical character actions, it can be tough to come up with enough variation in them to sustain an entire novel. When editing an earlier draft of EMPATHY, I can’t tell you how many times I had to replace examples of characters lingering or letting things linger or linger linger linger.
Weird word, right? Anyway—
There are a few strategies for finding effective replacements when trying to keep your characters’ behaviors from becoming too repetitive.
The first is to slow down—not with your writing, I mean, but in real life. Give yourself permission to become a (polite) weirdo by watching what others do when you’re out getting lunch or taking the dog for a walk. If you’re a total shut-in, study the actions of characters on TV and in film to get a feel for how those actors use gestures to convey a wide range of emotions. Even this can be effective in mining for new character actions, though I still encourage the more organic “observing people in the wild” approach.
Why? Because remember: people in movies and on TV are just acting. They’re making physical what we as writers make verbal. The best actors will look natural, but it’s never the same as real, authentic interaction, in my opinion.
Another great resource is to pick up a copy of The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. I keep a copy of this on the bookshelf next to my desk, and any time I find myself stuck trying to convey a character’s emotion via action or internal response, I page through it to find something that will get my mind moving in another, more varied direction.
Seriously, get yourself a copy. You’ll be doing yourself, your characters, and your readers a huge favor.
But don’t take me the wrong way here: I’m not saying (nor would I ever) that you can only use each action once per novel per character or anything. The goal is simply to keep things fresh so that readers don’t find themselves going through page after page of characters putting their hands on their hips or pursing their lips or furrowing their brows. On their own, every character action has merit, but when the same ones are used over and over again, they begin to lose their impact as a reader goes on.
Character Tics and Nervous Habits
At any rate, we now know we’re going to be more economical with our character actions going forward, and also try to avoid repetition when possible–but what about character tics? Don’t we as people all have little habits when we’re nervous or happy or scared?
Of course we do. So shouldn’t your characters?
These are the main exceptions to the suggestions above, as they can help define a character for readers.
Consider the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin. How many times does Stannis grind his teeth? How many times does Jon Snow flex his sword hand? How many times does Varys titter?
If you’ve read the series, you know the answer to the above is: “Holy cow, they really do those things all the time, don’t they?”
And yes. Yes, they do.
But they’re emblematic. They’re actions that seem reserved specifically for those characters, and they represent not only their reactions to the goings-on, but who they are as people.
In EMPATHY for example, Heather is always sipping her coffee to buy herself time to respond or to conceal a facial expression. She does it for both of those reasons, but also because, well, she has to fuel her chronic caffeine addiction. It’s in these ways that sipping from her thermos becomes an action all her own. For further examples from EMPATHY, consider that Wyatt picks at his mustache when irritated, and, in an earlier draft, Meredith suffered from terrible stress-induced heartburn.
All of these habits were particular to those characters, and also cues to the reader to know 1) exactly who they were dealing with and 2) give them a better sense of those characters as people.
That’s not to say I have those characters doing these things constantly, either. On the contrary, I feel it’s best to really want to “save” up these actions for the moments that truly call for them, or they, like any too-repeated action, will lose their effectiveness. How many times you use them for your own characters is up to you, but as with all things in writing it’s important to strike a balance and let context be your guide.
When writing our character actions and reactions, it’s critical that we 1) strive for precision and economy, and 2) minimize repetition unless we’re 3) taking advantage of character tics and nervous habits.
Using these tips as a guide can help us help readers get the best feel possible for every character, while also keeping each scene as fresh as possible. Fresh scenes make for engaged readers, and engaged readers make for happy readers.