My heart fluttered with excitement this week when I received some expert advice on the first three chapters of my manuscript. A particularly useful tip that I was given was to avoid resorting to clichés when portraying the emotions of my main character. One of the most common clichés writers fall prey to is describing emotion using physiological responses. For example, when my main character tells us that her ‘heart fluttered’ or her ‘gut twisted’.
Mary Kole describes eyes, heart, lungs and stomach as the Four Horsemen of the Prose-ocalypse in her article on Kid Lit, stating that emotions described using these parts of the human body appear in every manuscript and the onus is on the reader to come up with something different.
I had a search through my manuscript for instances where I describe emotion using a physiological response. The results made my heart sink.
I found over THIRTY instances where my main character’s heart was doing something wacky, from leaping to stopping, being heavy, jumping around, aching, racing, thudding, lurching, deflating, twisting, dropping – the whole gamut of heart-related things. My poor main character will probably need to seek medical advice by the end of the novel after the rollercoaster ride I’ve sent her poor ticker on.
There are (gasp!) TWENTY-THREE occasions where someone takes a deep breath. I’m furrowing my brow to discover THIRTY-SIX frowns in my manuscript, and I need to see a physio after counting THIRTY-FOUR shrugs altogether. Not to mention rolling my eyes at over TWO HUNDRED mentions of … well, eyes.
But this is realistic, isn’t it? When I’m anxious, my heart does feel like it’s pounding against my rib cage. My stomach does twist! When I’m nervous, I do feel short of breath! I’m not sure I actually shrug that much or roll my eyes every five minutes, but those are my two most frequently used emojis! And besides, all of these things are universal cues that readers understand, right?!?
I searched through a couple of published novels by respectable authors and I did find a few hearts dropping into stomachs and leaping into throats. For example, Robert Galbraith’s Lethal White has a few mentions of a heart beating erratically during a tense situation. In Anthony Horowitz’s The Sentence is Death, I didn’t find any. But then in a recent women’s fiction novel I read, there were over one hundred. Generally speaking, most of the novels I checked had about five descriptions of emotions as a physiological response, which seems fair enough.
So what am I going to do about my main character’s overactive heartbeat, irritable bowel and impending asthma? Well, I’m definitely taking on board the advice I received. It’s time to tidy up my lazy writing.
Robin Patchen is an editor writing for Live Write Thrive, and suggests showing emotions through thoughts and actions. “When you have a very emotional scene, slow it down. Let us hear your character’s every thought. Highlight a few details. Show the actions.” This is hard work, but well worth the effort!
A lot of my references to hearts, eyes, lungs and stomachs can simply be deleted. Another thing I’m experimenting with is describing how the main character feels at a certain point in the story and relating it back to a similar situation in her past. I’m hoping this will be a good way to reveal information about character.
And in another instance, a character in my manuscript was shrugging so much I’ve drawn attention to it in a way that I hope adds humour to the story (e.g. “He’d shrugged so many times that I was worried he might dislocate a shoulder.”)
It’s also worth keeping in mind that a lot of these things can be discussed during a copy edit.
It’s hard to think of creative alternatives, especially since most of them have already been thought of by one or more of the other thousands of talented writers in the world. But when you do create that moment of pure writing gold, it will surely make your heart swell with pride.