Recently I received an email from Janis about my blog on mannerisms.

Janis asks:

In one of your blogs, you gave a list of the trite mannerisms you don’t like to see repeated in fiction (knitting of brows, lip biting, narrowing of eyes, etc.) In looking over the list, it seems to me that if the writer needs to show that the character is experiencing anxiety or some other emotion, describing facial expressions is a necessity. If the author refrains from using any of those, he or she would have to end up “telling” what the character is feeling, instead of showing it. He felt nervous, he was mad, etc. (I know that you did say you would allow it once, maybe twice, but no more after that.) So, are you saying that we need to avoid facial expressions in relaying the emotion a character is feeling? Sounds impossible without some repetition. There’s only so many facial expressions available.

My answer: Writers become too dependent on the same facial expressions, described in the same way. That’s part of my complaint. Too much repetition. Another part of my complaint is that it’s really unrealistic. I want you to watch the next several times someone either says yes or no to some question put to them. See if they actually nod yes or shake their head no. I hardly ever see it happen unless the person cannot give a verbal answer. Also, I’m going to disagree with your statement “there are only so many facial expressions available.” There are billions of faces on the planet and quite a few more available in the minds of all the writers out there. Those faces can and should have distinctives that make them unique. And the way any one of those faces may react to a given emotion should also vary.

To respond to another part of your question, telling the reader a character’s emotional reaction is not necessary either. Sometimes the reader will “get” the reaction without either telling or describing the reaction. It can be done. The adept writer will find fresh ways to convey meaning to the reader. It’s a sign of maturity in a writer to avoid clichéd words and actions in their characters. One option is the use of simile or metaphor. Off the top of my head, how about something like:

Joe’s head bobbled like a dashboard ornament. (Instead of Joe nodded).


Linda’s face was that of a woman in labor. (Instead of Linda’s eyes widened in pain).

Two crude examples, but I hope you see that there are more creative ways of showing characters’ reactions.

About a month ago (after my blog on this topic and before your email) I read a wonderful description wherein the author conveyed the perfect response in his character without resorting to the trite mannerisms under discussion. I wish now I could remember where I saw it. In the next few days, I’ll try to watch for specific examples and post them here.

Readers, consider this as an invitation for you to submit examples from your own writing or reading that effectively shows a character’s reaction without resorting to the stale mannerisms we usually see.

5 replies
  1. Erin J. says:

    From a blog post I’m writing about our Ethiopian adoption: “God works in messy, noisy, chocolate-pudding-covered ways.” Yes, God has mannerisms too!

  2. JANIS says:

    Thanks so much for addressing my question on mannerisms. I love metaphors and similes when authors use them to express feelings; but, to come up with my own has not always been easy. Here is one great metaphor that probably applies to me when I work hard to try and come up with one:

    “It was the kind of sentence that spent a lot of time in reverse gear before crunching itself into first.” Martin Amis, “The Coincidence of the Arts, Heavy Water, 19xx.

    However, here are a few of my own:

    “He trembled with faint hope, like a leaf maintaining its last hold on a branch before plummeting to its death.”

    “A piteous cry erupted, tearing through him like the jagged teeth of a ripsaw.”

    “Without warning, all the tautness and strain inside him let go, like the untwisting of a knotted up rubber band.”

    “His face looked like a lump of dark, smoldering coal.”

    “Fear was thick in his throat like molasses.”

    Lastly, although not about mannerisms, thought you and your readers might get a chuckle over the following attempts. They were written by either grammar or high school students (can’t recall which). You certainly have to give them “A” for effort:

    “The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.”

    “McBride fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a Hefty Bag filled with vegetable soup.”

  3. Tami Meier says:

    I’m not always sure if I’m doing things right or giving the examples you are looking for, but it’s fun trying. Thanks, Nick for the opportunity. I enjoy learning from your blog.

    Can a Dyslexic be a Writer?
    By Tami Meier

    I had to force myself to face what I didn’t like to do—read.

    A whole page of black words on white paper overwhelmed me. It was like going to war to fight this battle over words I didn’t know.

    Once Arrived at Heaven’s Gate…
    By Tami Meier

    Imagine if you will, no longer waiting to meet the one heart has been longing for. For now you are in the very presence of the one who designed and created you in your mother’s womb, the one who knows everything about you, even the exact number of the hairs on your head.

    In awe and with great respect you can hardly refrain from running to the Father’s arms. Enthralled by His illuminating sovereignty and splendor, you press through the crowd (as if no one could keep you from the one you love,) you make your way to the very throne room of Almighty God.

    Trumpets and instruments of unheard majestic sounds blast through the air as rolling thunder sending a breeze through your hair. The trumpets announce your arrival as you enter the garden courtyard of the King. His fragrance is that of flowers and His train fills the temple as the beautiful train of a bride.

    Unable to fully describe how you feel, stunned by holy reverence and awestruck by His compelling existence, you gracefully fall on your face prostrate in His presence and like a father searching to find his lost child and when reunited… likewise the heavenly Father with great joy runs to greet you with His love and embrace. And now on His knees, He gently lifts your head in total acceptance, given away by the spark and twinkle in His eyes and dimple formed from His smile. With His thumb He then gently wipes away your last tear and says, “Welcome home.”

    Placing a crown upon your head He proceeds to tell you, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant, for you love much and have kept my commands to:” “… ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Matthew 22: 37- 39 (NIV)

    Overwhelmed with emotion, you sigh with relief. Arm in arm He lifts you to your feet as you melt into His embrace. Filled with immense pleasure, every longing you’ve ever had, and every heart’s desire now fulfilled. Completely satisfied with excitement, you began to jump for joy when you hear Jesus, the Bridegroom read from the guest list and announce that your name has been found written in the Book of Life. The trumpets sound and all of heaven cheers, rejoicing with you.

    The Father then presents you—His treasured daughter—the Bride, and gives you to His Son. The bridegroom—Prince-Jesus, handsome and majestic, begins to spin with His arms outstretched swaying through the air as He twirls and dances over you, with exceeding joy. The Heavenly Father announces, “Let the celebrations and the wedding feast begin!”

  4. Jan Cline says:

    Well, I certainly had my eyes opened when I did a search on “face”, “like”, and “as if.” In trying to find a few expressions like ones you mentioned, I found I had a bad habit of repetition and weak descriptions. I will repeat my search and improve as many as possible – thanks for the debate. As for some examples, I could only find a few that even might be mildly close:

    “Her nose followed the scents like a hunting dog, eager to soothe the gnawing in her stomach.”

    ‘Miss Tibbitt helped as much as possible; scolding Evan for working too hard, and commenting on the frown lines hovering over his drooping eyelids.”

    “He turned and bowed to Sarah, but his face still carried the frown.”

    Looks like I have some work to do!
    Blessings, Jan

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