The body is a temple, a key to the soul. In fiction, a character’s body can reveal emotion and habits, but this can go awry. Below are seven body functions that can creep into writing in clichéd, ineffective, and colorless ways to weaken your prose.
1. Respiratory Problems: Does your character take a breath before he performs a mundane activity, such as make a phone call, answer a question, or walk out the door? Does she release a breath she’s been holding, but never knew she was holding it? Does she take a deep breath before a more stressful activity, as if you are telling the reader, “Yes, she’s going to run into live gunfire, but she took a deep breath, so don’t worry, she’ll be okay!” Deep breaths are not force fields, and breathing is not a telling activity. The only time breathing is interesting is when a character stops.
2. Heart ailments: Does your character suffer a pounding heart, a racing heart, a hammering heart, a squeezed or broken or weary heart? Does his heart leap into his throat or drop to his feet? In a moment of tension, does it beat so loudly, the character can hear it in his own ears or, worse, be certain everyone in the room can hear it? Like breathing, the heart is most interesting when it ceases to function. If you are considering a malfunctioning heart to demonstrate your character’s emotional state, consider The Telltale Heart. Can you top Edgar Allan Poe? The heart has reached its pinnacle in storytelling. Allow it to rest, and beat, peacefully there.
3. Disembodiment: You’re sitting at a coffee bar. The love of your life from high school walks in. You are so excited, your eyes race across the room….What? Your eyes are racing across the room? Well, don’t just sit there, run after them! Oh wait, you can’t, because you can’t see, because your eyes jumped out of your head and are now running around….If you write that your feet carry you across the dance floor, would you also write that your legs walked you across the road? A character’s extremities or organs don’t perform activities independent of the rest of the body. Eyes stay in heads. Legs are not escorts.
4. Hyperactivity: Your character nods, shrugs, wriggles around, and says, “I guess so.” Go ahead: nod, shrug and wriggle at the same time. Does this feel natural? Or, visually, do you look like you’re on speed? If a character is nervous, you can show that with a shaking foot or a twitch. However, if after every line of dialogue, the character performs a small, meaningless action, the reader has to stop listening to the dialogue and process that action, go back to the dialogue, process more action, and so on. It’s like watching a tennis match, only one side keeps missing the ball, so the game stops after each serve/line of dialogue. Don’t disrupt the natural flow of speaking with meaningless or too many actions.
5. Attention Deficit Disorder: Officer Malcolm asks, “Ma’am, where were you at ten o’clock, when the deceased expired from a hammering heart and racing eyeballs that even deep breaths could not help?” Your character Louanne responds to this direct and simple question with…an internal soliloquy–Ma’am? He doesn’t remember me? We were together down at the crick, me in my first white bikini and Malcolm wearing that tie-dyed Speedo. We were sixteen that summer, the same summer the Serial Killer of Our Hometown made his first appearance, and now he’s back—and fails to answer the question. Police officers don’t like it when, instead of answering their questions, your mind wanders into an info dump.
6. Stuttering: If one character bumbles and mumbles when he speaks, that may be a personal condition. He/she has my sympathy. But if every character begins dialogue with, “Well…ah…um….” and trails off at the end, that’s not a personal condition. That’s a writing habit. Stuttering is not contagious. ONE character can be the guy who can’t articulate his thoughts without ahs and ums and wells, but if all of your characters do this, the manuscript will suffer from All Characters Sound Alike Syndrome.
7. Premature ejaculation: Excitement is building. Tension is ramping up. Your readers’ hearts are pounding as their eyes race across the words. (Ha ha.) Your readers are turning pages as quickly as they can read them. At the climax, when the heroine finally opens the door to the tower/basement/lighthouse/ballroom, you read, “And what I saw on the floor changed my life, and the lives of all the clan members, forever.” Well…darn. That tells me a great big bowl of nothing. Instead of climaxing, you forecasted. I still don’t know what’s behind the door, and you jumped out of the scene at the very peak of action. My interest, rather than be aroused, is deflated. I wanted to see what was on the floor. I wanted to decipher its meaning. But you had to rush things. The leap ahead, and out of the scene, came at the moment I wanted to be most in the scene, and in the moment. Maybe you couldn’t help yourself, but still. Thanks for nothing.
Is your writing suffering from any of these ailments?