7 Maladies That Will Sicken Your Writing

RamonaGravitarThe 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?

29 thoughts on “7 Maladies That Will Sicken Your Writing

  1. She held on with a white knuckled grip, heart flying out of her chest like the flock of pigeons she remembered from that time at Capitol Square when her father had told her the news that would change her life forever. With an eye roll and a wink the burly men in white coats shrugged and let the still cackling woman bring her laptop. As the ambulance doors closed, or was it just before, she was heard to say, “it’s all Ramona’s fault!”


  2. Well, geez. 3-6 I’m good on (partly due to your teaching, Ramona, and that of Chris Roerden). But I do have all my protagonists doing a lot of deep breathing. I really can’t do that? In my personal non-fiction life, I find that taking a deep breath helps. Rats.

    And what about when your heart really is beating in your throat? I know these things shouldn’t be overdone, but when the action really demands it?


    1. Edith, let me specify to say, these are not forbidden, of course, but an action should have meaning. If your character is taking a deep breath because it’s the end of her yoga class, of course. If it’s because she’s standing in a field of lavender, please do employ the deep breath. And, most likely, if she’s steeling herself for a bad moment, that’s fine too. Sparingly. Any action used habitually becomes a habit for the character, or a crutch for the writer, so it’s up to you to decide which is right for you. Deep breaths are SO overused. And they really don’t stop bullets, but I”m pretty sure you know that!

      Very generally speaking: A heart beating in a throat moment usually happens in a high action scene or when the character is anticipating something terrible. In the first, the description will put the reader into the character’s body, when the action is happening outside. When people are fighting, they don’t take the time to notice their pulse is up. The anticipation is more okay, in my mind,but it’s tricky placement to keep from pulling the reader away from the action.


      1. Yes, thanks for this! Now if you could do something about butterflies in the stomach, flip-flopping stomachs, gut tightening–all of which I’ve used btw–I might be okay.


      2. Joyce, I’ve used butterflies too. But something just hit me – what you use has to be genre appropriate too. I mean, one of my series uses a 13-year old narrator. How else is she going to describe that sensation except as “butterflies”? Adds a whole different level of complexity (at least for me).


  3. My first drafts suffer horribly from almost all of these. I’d like to think that by the time I finish hacking and slashing my way through revision, most (if not all) are gone.

    Edith, I’m with you. Sometimes you have to take a deep breath. And sometimes your heart is racing. I think the key is not to overdo it.


    1. Mary, my first drafts suffer from all kinds of horror. The point is to keep that draft to yourself. 🙂

      Don’t overdo it. Make it meaningful. Don’t allow the act to pull the reader out of the story.


  4. Great post. I’ve been learning all about this from Elizabeth Hein, owner of Scribbling in the Storage Room, who re-posted this today. She’s in my critique group and keeps our collective noses to the grindstone when it comes to these maladies. Loved Premature Ejaculation. You’re a great teacher!


  5. Thanks for sharing this. I think I may give my characters too much business, as if I were directing a play and had to have blocking for every line. Am in mid-revision on a book now and will look for that malady.


    1. Amber, too much business is an excellent way to put it. Even small actions should have meaning. If it’s busywork, or distracting, you may be cluttering the action.
      Thanks for commenting, and good luck with the revision.


  6. Anne Perry started driving me nuts when every time — I mean, EVERY TIME — something happened, her characters (especially the delicate Victorian ladies) went white in the face. Or they suddenly paled, or her face became so white he feared she would faint but with a magnificent effort she regained control . . . something like that. It doesn’t seem prevalent with other writers, so maybe it has to do with the Victorian settings. Her use became so repetitious that I swore I’d never use it, but lately I’ve found that it’s a great way to show emotion without showing much. I’m really trying not to overdo it!


  7. Well, dang. I’m pretty sure I’ve got some of these in my WIP. Now I need to re-examine the patient and see if I’m looking at a mild case or something fatal. Thanks for the tips.


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