Monday, September 27, 2010

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition. Sound Familiar?

Ah, now here comes a tip that you won't want to miss. It might even sound a bit familiar. Or perhaps I'm just repeating myself.

It's a bit like when you take a step into the kitchen and open that refrigerator door, and something tells you, "Didn't you just do that before three times?" Writer or a reader, I can almost see you nodding your head.

It definitely reminds me of how often I read how Kathleen E. Woodiwiss's heroines placed their hands akimbo.  Ah, yes.

The next time you open a book or turn your manuscript on, I'll bet you'll catch exactly what Delia's driving at too.

This tip will hopefully help you to see things BEFORE the line editor does and before the next reader gets a hold of your fantastic book.

So grab ANOTHER cup of coffee with me, okay? Let's take a moment to see what Delia has in mind.

Broken Record Writing
Writing Tip #4
by Delia Latham

With the advent of cassette tapes and CDs, the term “broken record” is fast becoming obsolete. I’m hoping most people still know what it means.

Even if the experience is not personal, most of us have heard the result of a scratched record. The needle gets hung in the scratch, the record keeps spinning, and the result is an annoying repetition of the same words—over and over…and over again.

It happens in writing, as well. Sometimes our characters’ repetitious actions make a reader crazy.

My heroes chuckle a lot. They grin when I can’t think of anything else for them to do. They love to “quirk” or “hike” an eyebrow. My ladies’ lips “curve upward in a smile” way too often.

I recently read a rough draft chapter for an author whose characters overused their hands. Every few sentences, an action tag involved the word “hands.” She wrung her hands. He ran a hand through his hair. Their hands touched. He stuffed his hands into his pockets. She placed a hand over her mouth.

Talk about your broken record! A whole book of that would have me breaking the record over the hero’s head.

A friend admitted that she uses coffee as a tool for too much of the action in her story. He poured himself a cup of coffee. She wrapped her cold fingers around the hot mug. He sipped the hot brew. She tasted the lukewarm liquid and set her cup back on the table. He put on another pot of coffee. If I consumed as much caffeine as these characters, I’d never sleep!

No author wants a reputation for being a broken record writer. I certainly don’t. So how can we avoid overusing expressions and actions to the point that our readers want to throw our books against the nearest wall?

People communicate their internal feelings in many different ways. Non-verbal communication can be one of a writer’s strongest tools, if used with discretion. According to some studies, body language accounts for fifty-five percent of communication, so we definitely should use it to make our characters more real. Experts have found that certain actions usually indicate specific frames of mind, though some are interchangeable.

Is she lying? These actions might give the reader a hint:

      Avoiding eye contact by looking down or away

      Using her hand to touch her face or head

      Holding something in front of her body, like a barrier

      Smiling insincerely (lips and mouth only, it won’t reach the eyes)

      Shuffling her feet

      Clenching her jaw

      Licking her lips

Has something captured his attention? Non-verbal signs might include:

      Direct eye contact

      A nod

      Tilted (or cocked) head

      Leaning forward

      Dilated pupils

Is your character bored? She will show it by:

      Turning her body slightly away

      Looking around, but not directly at the person or object of boredom

      Glancing at her watch

      Tapping her fingers or toes

      Shifting weight from one foot to the other

      Yawning

If she’s attracted to someone, she’ll do the following:

      Blink rapidly

      Lean toward the person she’s attracted to

      Mirror the other person’s actions

      Adjust her clothing; smooth her hair; clean her glasses (some form of unconscious preening)

      Stare

      Raise her eyebrows, even if only for a second or two

Is he undecided? He’ll probably:

      Stroke his chin, rub his cheek or forehead

      Scratch the back of his head or neck

      Narrow his eyes

      Purse his lips

      Tilt his head

      Wrinkle his nose

Nervous people might:

      Blink rapidly (Aha! Some actions are duplicated across multiple mindsets)

      Clear their throats

      Wring their hands

      Fidget

      Massage their temples

      Adjust their collars

      Cross their arms

      Clench their jaws or show other signs of muscle tension

Is your character angry? Describe it with:

      Clenched fists

      Frowning

      Baring teeth (snarling)

      Narrowing eyes

      Placing hands (or fists) on hips, feet spread

Have a hero who wants to dominate? He will:

      Walk in brisk strides

      Place his hands on his hips, and maybe spread his feet

      Raise his eyebrows

      Clasp his hands behind his head

      Narrow his eyes

A mountain of information is available on body language and its interpretations. If you’re in danger of too much repetition in your characters’ actions, a little Internet research could pay big dividends. Learn about body language and prevent your characters from becoming robotic and repetitive…your readers from going justifiably insane…and you from being a broken record writer.

© 2010 Delia Latham
Yesterday's Promise

Adam's Wings (coming 12/2010)

(Now, wasn't that just great!  I think I'll have to go pour myself another cup of coffee
and read that tip again. How about you?
Be assured, we always welcome your comments.)


  1. Good thoughts here! It is so easy to fall into a few repetitive actions for our characters because we are trying to make them unique. But too much and we end up in the other ditch. Quirking an eyebrow is definitely one that my characters do a lot. Thanks for the pointers.

  2. Oh so good. I love reading about body language. I will get a lot out of this. thanks so much Delia and Shirley.
    Betty F.
    Windsor, CA

  3. You're so right, Lynnette! There's a fine line between too much and not enough variation, isn't there?

    Betty, I hope it does help a little.

    Thanks to both of you for stopping by!

  4. So true! I've noticed it in the writing of other people (and had similar reactions to the one's you described!) and I've caught it more than once in my own. I think the latter is much harder for us to detect, thus we need some honest 'friends' to point out the errors of our ways1

  5. Hi Delia,

    Thanks for the writing tips! Perfect timing for me. I am proofreading a story now before I submit it. Great list.

    Have a great Tuesday!

  6. Hi, Tracy! You are so right. I would be lost without my critique partners, and pre-readers who point those things out to me.

    Diane, how nice to see you! Glad you enjoyed the article. Good luck with your submission!

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