Mannerisms in Fiction

First, let me say that I compiled this list at least two years ago…so if I’m your editor, please know that this list was not the result of something YOU did.

That said, here is my pet peeve about some mannerisms in fiction.

How often do you really shake your head? Or swallow hard just because you’re nervous? Does your heart really skip a beat when you’re in love? (If so, you should see a cardiologist right away).

Sorry, I’m still stuck on the mannerisms in a novel I recently read. The author has at least a dozen occurences of someone shaking their head when they say no to something:

Maggie shook her head. “Only the doctor can help now.”

But do people shake their heads all that often? I don’t think I ever do. I know the reader will “get it,” so when I edit a novel with shaking heads all over the place, I may leave a few instances…but I’m certainly going to cut back in frequency. It just doesn’t happen that often in real life. Besides, it sounds hollow and very unimaginative.

Here’s my list of the trite mannerisms I do not normally allow to be repeated in the fiction I edit. (Maybe once. Maybe even twice…but thrice? He shook his head decidedly no.)

Feel free to add your own suggestions. I’m all ears (he said as he raked his fingers through his hair).

No:

curling lips
furrowed brows
knitting of brows
lip biting, chewing, or gnawing
hair raked through his fingers
heart pounding
heart skipping a beat
swallowing hard when nervous
blood draining from the head
stomach knotted
lifted or arched eyebrow
nostrils flaring
narrowing of eyes
eyes blinking
shaking of head
muscles in the jaw twitching
throat tightening
tucking a tendril of hair behind her ear
face knotted
eyes fluttered open
winced
every muscle in her body tensed
covering mouth with hand
temples throbbed
lifting the corners of the mouth
pushed a smile up from his lips
chest tightened
clearing his throat
cheeks warm
letting out a slow breath

More contributions?

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30 Responses to Mannerisms in Fiction

  1. Michael K. Reynolds April 28, 2010 at 2:43 pm #

    As I read this in horror, with furrowed brows and a knot in my stomach, I just couldn’t stop shaking my head. Looks like I’m rewriting again!

  2. Nick April 28, 2010 at 2:54 pm #

    Mike, not all editors feel that way. And if this is first draft, don’t stop and change that now. Finish your first draft and then go back and see if you can find ways to make your point without resorting to the cliched mannerisms.

  3. Roxy Henke April 28, 2010 at 3:00 pm #

    I understand what you’re getting at but, on the other hand, characters need to “do” something. They can’t just stand or sit motionless and speak. I’ve noticed a tendency towards overly-tight writing (or is it editing?) lately. It’s “beat-after-beat” and the lyricism is gone. Thoughts?

  4. Nick April 28, 2010 at 3:07 pm #

    I’m all for lyricism, Roxy, but to me those cliches are not lyricism. They’re mostly stale, stale, stale. Can’t a character “do something” fresh?

    Your fiction doesn’t suffer from this, though. As I remember your novels, your writing was always fresh.

  5. Richard Mabry April 28, 2010 at 5:21 pm #

    Nick, I tried “picked his nose,” but that didn’t go over too well (although you have to admit that for some characters it seems natural).
    Seriously, thanks for sharing this list. I’ve been warned off most of them, but you listed some I hadn’t considered.
    From now on, I’ll use a check list. Only one “shook his/her head” per novel.

  6. Keli Gwyn April 28, 2010 at 5:48 pm #

    I agree that overused mannerisms are stale and should be avoided, but I wonder if you can give a few before and after examples that demonstrate better ways to convey the same information. We’ve heard “show don’t tell” so often, many of us can probably recite the phrase in our sleep. Instead of saying a person disapproves or is skeptical, a writer may have a character furrow of knit his grown. However, if those beats are cliche, what are some other options?

    I’m constantly striving to improve my writing, so I’d be interested in hearing your suggestions. What do you tell one of your authors who has the same concerns?

  7. Nick April 28, 2010 at 6:59 pm #

    Keli, I’ll try to find some examples tomorrow. Others may want to offer up some too.

  8. Nick April 28, 2010 at 7:27 pm #

    Okay, I just picked up a copy of a small book I enjoy called “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote. Each of these lines is from that very slim book and each one could easily have used one of the trite lines above to show action. But instead, Capote found a fresh way of showing a character in action.

    Take a look at each of these lines from different parts of the book:

    Footsteps. The door opens. Our hearts overturn.

    He glowers at us through Satan-tilted eyes.

    My friend’s clear eyes contemplated me as though I were a Rook card she was deciding how to play.

    Her cheeks pinked and a light flared in her eyes.

    Uncle B., staring at me with an alarming wintriness, took charge.

    Her voice sank like the sun on the pasture’s horizon, was silent a second, and then climbed with the strength of a new sun.

  9. Brenda Jackson April 28, 2010 at 8:37 pm #

    I’m all for fresh writing, but at times it seems in our haste to eradicate well known turns of phrase, the writing gets clunky. That clunkiness is one of my pet peeves! LOL! I don’t have a novel handy to use as an example, but it seems to me that in general, the majority of phrases used in a novel fade into the background, much like using “said” instead of something like “he tittered” etc. Maybe once or twice on average will I see in a novel a turn of phrase that was catchy but not glaring and attention seeking. But sometimes it goes too far and calls attention to itself like a really gaudy outfit.

  10. Keli Gwyn April 28, 2010 at 9:21 pm #

    Nick, thanks for the examples. I see great usage of similes and metaphors.

    I’m adding “search for stale mannerisms” to my self-editing checklist.

  11. Judy Vandiver April 29, 2010 at 5:06 am #

    Nick, great list. I’m printing it out and will refer to it often. Thanks.

  12. Nick April 29, 2010 at 8:40 am #

    Author Linda Rondeau commented on the Facebook link to my blog:

    “I think a lot of these happen because writers think they have to leave a beat after every dialogue. Some dialogue should be permitted to just flow without beats. The words themselves should identify the speaker more so than the beat. Just MHO”

    I’m glad you brought that up, Linda. That’s exactly right. And sometimes a beat DOES help. But the beat does not have to be a cliche. If you need a beat, add it in a fresh way. But, as Linda says, often beats are unnecessary. As she says, “some dialogue should be permitted to just flow without beats.” So true.

    Part of growing as a writer is developing that inner ear that will tell you when a beat is necessary and when it’s not.

    Thanks, Linda!

  13. Nicole April 29, 2010 at 9:22 am #

    Aw, c’mon, Nick, I said, shaking my head and wincing at your comments, my heart pounding out of control and my fingers pulling my hair out in fistfulls.

    Cleaing my throat of the morning mucous, I managed to write while biting my lip and furrowing my brow in deep concentration, “Nick, it’s just not fair!” and I swallowed hard after my written shout while every muscle in my body tensed–muscles I had no idea existed!

    😉 (See you at NCWR.)

  14. Lori Stanley Roeleveld April 29, 2010 at 3:50 pm #

    You don’t ever shake your head?

  15. Nicole April 29, 2010 at 4:25 pm #

    Good question, Lori. I shake mine in disgust or flabbergast-ment frequently. But that’s me.

  16. Nick April 29, 2010 at 7:01 pm #

    No, I really can’t remember doing it, especially as routinely as it occurs in fiction. Maybe on a rare occasion when I’m trying to be especially emphatic for some reason. Or if I’m trying to say no to someone across the room and don’t want to shout…then I might shake my head.

  17. Angela Meuser May 13, 2010 at 9:53 am #

    I remember reading one book where the woman’s arms were always akimbo. It drove me crazy.

  18. Shannon Dittemore May 13, 2010 at 10:38 am #

    I’m shaking my head right now!

    No, I’m not.

    Actually, while I certainly use these mannerisms from time to time, I agree that we should consider ourselves artists and avail ourselves of the words around us. We just have to be wise enough to know when something is overdone. Or underdone. Or should have never been attempted!

    With a background in acting, one of my weaknesses is that I want the reader to see things just as I see them. But, readers should be free to impart a bit of themselves and their own preferred mannerisms to the characters. It endears them to the book in a way our overdone, often cliched writing ever will.

  19. Michelle Van Loon September 8, 2010 at 2:57 pm #

    He cupped her cheek.

    I’ve seen the phrase used repeatedly in fiction written by a very popular Christian author.

    • Nick September 8, 2010 at 3:52 pm #

      That’s a good example, Michelle. I might allow that once in a book, but not more than once. (Please don’t tell me I was that author’s editor).

  20. Eric Jones December 24, 2010 at 9:48 am #

    Love the blog. Thanks for the post. I’m going to bookmark your blog and check back often.

  21. AnnaGrace Arnold October 1, 2011 at 8:05 pm #

    You forgot smiling crookedly.
    I.E. “one corner of his mouth tugged up into a crooked smile”.
    Read Twilight if you’re looking for a good list of literary “don’ts”.

  22. Julie November 15, 2011 at 10:26 am #

    Okay – got it. No more head shaking. But what are the alternatives?? Sometimes you want to add an action tag to your dialogue. Suggestions? Stuck!

  23. Claire April 14, 2012 at 6:54 am #

    So, what mannerisms ARE allowed?

  24. Sarah Anderson May 14, 2012 at 4:43 pm #

    Dear Nick,

    I’m a sixteen year old artist. I say artist because I enjoy writing, but I am not interested in writing a novel or short story that is the next twilight harry potter hunger games obsession. I wish to write with much more meaning, style, and interest; however, I am young and inexperienced. I find that I have frequent great ideas, but poor execution because I am impatient and lose interest in my writing. Could you give me advice as to how to pursue my goal? I found your blog interesting and would also like for you to broaden on some fresh characteristic mannersims.

    Thank you for your time.

    -Sarah

  25. Nick May 19, 2012 at 8:22 pm #

    Sarah, write every day. Read often. Go to at least one writer’s conference a year. Try to join a local writer’s critique group. Keep at it.

  26. Nick May 19, 2012 at 8:23 pm #

    Claire, I’m not against mannerisms. I’m just suggesting fresh ways of showing them. I find things like hearts “skipping a beat” to be so cliched it calls attention to itself.

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