Thursday, September 25, 2014

Sighs, Nods, and Shrugs: Those annoying Little (Literary) Tics

I teach college biology. One of the many perks of my job is that it provides me ample opportunities to observe human behavior in all its glorious, and not so glorious, variety.
My husband also teaches, so we sometimes share stories about amusing things that happen in our classes (in ways that respect the privacy of all parties involved of course). One thing we've both noticed is that every class seems to have a mad sigher--a student who emits theatrical sighs when the instructor announces a quiz or homework, changes topics in lecture, misspeaks and corrects themselves, or when another student asks a question.

Needless to say, it's a noticeable mannerism. It's something that calls attention to itself. And while everyone sighs from time to time, some people do it more (and do it more loudly) than others.
Mannerisms are an important part of character building in fiction. Some characters will sigh, nod, blink, shrug etc. more than others. This is fine if it's intentional, but we often don't even realize it. Simple, everyday gestures can become mindless insertions.

So how many times can a character nod before readers think herhead may fall off? How many times can a writer mention quirked or raised eyebrows before they start to resemble great fuzzy caterpillars that may escape and attach themselves to the wainscotting?

Writing instructors and editors often enjoin us to be more mindful of stock gestures. I've even run across blogs that suggest that you only get five or six nods per manuscript. While I agree that excessive use of these gestures can become annoying, I got to thinking. Why five or six? What's magical about that number? And do all  successful and popular writers (or their editors) follow this advice?

I have both a nook and an ipad, so I've become an avid consumer of e-books. One thing these devices allow me to do is to conduct word searches. So I thought I'd do a little informal experiment and count the number of uses of some of these "go to" words in some of the books in my e-library. My reading is heavily weighted towards fantasy and SF, so all the titles save one fall into this category.

The words I searched for were: sigh, nod, shrug, grin, frown, eyebrow, gritted (in the context of teeth), groan. I didn't look at specific context, though I did toss incidents that were embedded in unrelated words or not used in the description of a character, and I considered all tenses of these words.

The books I examined were: The Last Argument of Kings, by Abercrombie; Promise of Blood, by McClellan; Fool's Assassin, by Hobb; Ancillary Justice, by Leckie; Cold Magic, by Elliot; King Rat, by Meiville, Old Man's War, by Scalzi, The Thousand Names, by Wexler; Havemercy, by Jones and Bennett; Colours in the Steel, by Parker; The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by Jemisin; Oryx and Crake by Atwood; Foreigner by Cherryh; Fade to Black by Knight; and The Lies of Locke Lamorra by Lynch.
Obviously, I can make no claim about how typical these are for their genre. One interesting thing I noticed is that the three SF novels on the list (Foreigner, Ancillary Justice, and Old Man's War) were all below the overall average in their usage for all of the words in question, as was the one book on the list by a writer who could be termed  "literary" (Oryx and Crake). The sample size was not large enough to do meaningful statistical analysis, of course.

What I did discover, though, was that while there was an incredible amount of variety between authors. And most of these words were used more than five times, on average. Of all of them, nod was the most popular, averaging over 60 uses per book, ranging from a low of 7 uses (Cherryh) and a high of 179 uses (Wexler). The largest single word use in one book, however, was frown, with a total of 208 uses in Abercrombie's book. Tooth gritting was the least popular overall, averaging 4.5 uses per book (and ranging from 0-28).

Every single one of these novels had at least one mannerism that was mentioned seventeen times or more.

After I did this gesticular bean counting, I went through my own manuscript and discovered that my own characters rarely grit their teeth or groan, but they seem to nod (78 incidents) and grin (60 incidents) more than the overall average for the novels I sampled.

So, what does this mean? Are uses of stock phrases like "nodded" and "shrugged" the kiss of death to a manuscript? Clearly not, since some highly successful writers make heavy use of them. Is there some predetermined number that represents a tipping point in a given novel? If there is, it's clearly much higher than five or six. But I'd also argue this doesn't means a writer should be oblivious to their use of these words.

One thing to consider is that some words also call more attention to themselves than others. Raised eyebrows and gritted teeth were mentioned less frequently overall, and probably for good reason.

In contrast, I think that some of the more common stock phrases, like nodded, grinned, frowned, and shrugged can be nearly invisible to readers, assuming they're spaced out reasonably well. Still, it certainly won't hurt anything to ask oneself whether or not the description is really needed, and if it is, whether or not there might be a way to make the gesture more evocative.

Also, are all the characters in a novel using all the various gestures equally, or is one more likely to, say, grit her teeth, while another is more likely to sigh like a forlorn maiden? Trademark gestures can be an aspect of characterization, but it doesn't take a huge number of repetitions to get across that a person is an inveterate sigher, or nodder, or shrugger.

A writer can reinforce that a repeated gesture is part of a character's mannerisms by having the other characters in the story notice them, especially if they have the potential to be irritating. It can be amusing to have one character call another out on it. The character can (if we spend time in their point of view) become self-conscious and worry whether they're doing it too often.

So are there any repeated actions or mannerisms you find irritating in a novel, or are there any you find you have to watch in your own writing?


  1. Very interesting post. I'd be interested in seeing how the use of mannerisms line up with the real life use of them. (Must search literature for information.)

  2. The mannerism that makes me wince is when a character smirks when the author clearly means they grinned. Smirking is such a loaded mannerism that to misuse it sends out the completely wrong message. I've noticed that the authors who use the word often do it because they misunderstand the meaning. Smirk at me just once in a story when you are really only grinning innocently, and I read no further.

  3. I'm with you on the smirking thing. A smirk is a very specific kind of grin, and not a terribly nice one. It definitely calls attention to itself, and is one that you don't need to use more than once or twice to get that aspect of a person's temperament across. And if someone treats it as a simple substitute for smile or grin, then ugh. I almost put this as an example of a description that becomes (even when used properly) annoyingly repetitive very quickly, in fact.

    Even more noticeable would be the term "fleer," which is an obscure word that overlaps in meaning with smirk. A great example of a synonym that an author probably shouldn't toss out there to keep things fresh either, since I suspect few people even know what it means.

  4. It's so great that you put numbers to this from actual books. Really puts thing in perspective and helps to overcome the arbitrariness of word use limits. I know that I use 'smile' too often, but apparently no more than Abercrombie uses frowns - I guess I'm just a happier writer :)

  5. Well, people probably should frown more often in Grimdark :) I'm still aware of the words I use more often and do try to think whether or not they're always needed, or the best words for the context.