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Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Editing tips - About the sighs of it

No, that isn’t a spelling mistake. I thought we’d go on an emotional odyssey today. Sigh is one of those overused words to illustrate a character’s feelings. Others that spring to mind are smiling, shrugging, nodding and frowning. While there’s nothing wrong with any of these, in moderation, there’s a strong tendency to settle for them all the time instead of working that little bit more to evoke greater emotional response from the reader. (Memo to writers – find ‘smiled’ in your manuscript; you’ll be surprised how often it’s used. The self-edit should have highlighted the repetition, too, of course, but often doesn’t).

I’m sure we’ve all seen examples such as these:

‘What a joke that was,’ he smiled.

‘I’m not too sure about that,’ he shrugged.

‘All right,’ he nodded.

Yes, these appear even in the prose of best-selling authors; no names, but you’ve come across them. It doesn’t mean they’re right. In fact, they’re using lazy short-hand. What they mean, invariably, is ‘he said and smiled.’ And other variants. I point out that you’ll find it difficult to smile and speak at the same time, anyway, in Write a western in 30 Days (p124).

Employing the above standby words too often is both lazy and unhelpful to the reader. The attributions ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ are virtually invisible to the reader so don’t derail the narrative flow; those shrugs, nods and smiles are virtually invisible also, when they’re being used as attribution.

‘What a joke that was.’ He smiled.

This is better. It puts emphasis on his action – smiling.

However, there have to be other ways of conveying his feelings. Smiling implies happiness. It so happens that a book published in 2012 can offer guidance. The Emotion Thesaurus, a writer’s guide to character expression (by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi) provides 75 emotion entries that list body language, thoughts and visceral responses for each type of emotion, from Adoration to Worry.

So our example could read,

‘What a joke that was.’ His eyes sparkled.


‘What a joke that was.’ He bounced on his toes.

It just depends on the depth of the emotion at that time. And that’s just a physical response. There are internal sensations (when you’re in that POV) – say, a feeling of breathlessness. The section also offers the cues of suppressed happiness.


A writer writes to affect the reader, even if only to entertain, but usually you’re also creating tension, anger, fear and perhaps tears – an emotional response which can only be evoked through experiencing the emotions of the characters.

I’ll quote from the Emotion Thesaurus: ‘All successful novels, no matter what genre, have one thing in common: emotion. It lies at the core of every character’s decision, action and word, all of which drive the story. Without emotion, a character’s personal journey is pointless. Stakes cease to exist… readers pick up a book to have an emotional experience. They read to connect with characters who provide entertainment and whose trials may add meaning to their own life journeys.’

At the risk of getting over-emotional, I believe that authors Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi have provided a great service to writers by writing the Emotion Thesaurus, which is for all writers, not simply budding scribes.


David Cranmer said...

The Emotion Thesaurus. Noted. And, as always, thanks for the tips, Nik.

Nik said...

Pleased that you're accessing them, David.

Pat Dilloway said...

In online critique groups poor dialog formatting is the #1 mistake first-timers make by using that short-hand. I'm not sure where we all learned it from because when you actually think it over you can see how wrong it is.

Charliann Roberts said...

I purchased this book a few months ago, Nik, and I love it. It's great to use along with my Flip Dictionary by Barbara Ann Kipfer, Ph.D.

Nik said...

Good to hear, Charliann. Like any aid, it's a case of using it judiciously and don't become a slave to it; best at the rewrite stage, so you don't interrupt the narrative flow looking for a better emotional term or cue.
Pat, it is curious how 'he smiled' became an attribution; yet it crops up all over the place now. Let's fight back!

Becca Puglisi said...

Hi, Nik! I'm so glad you're finding The Emotion Thesaurus useful. We wrote it because we were struggling with the same thing, so it's really nice to hear that it's fulfilling it's purpose. And thanks for spreading the word!

Nik said...

Thanks for popping in, Becca. Anyone reading this, do drop over on a regular basis to the bookshelf muse blog. Lots of good advice can be found there.

Anonymous said...

Very good suggestions in this piece.

Nik said...

Thank you, Anon.