Top 3 Overused Actions in Fiction

When you read a lot of books (and you’re writing fiction, too!) you notice when similar actions and phrases are repeated across novels.

This is to be expected. After all, it’s difficult to come up with new ways of saying the same thing all the time. Especially if what you’re describing is a mundane action, like a character frowning, narrowing their eyes, or wiping their forehead.

But characters have to do SOMETHING to break up the pace between dialogue and show us how they’re feeling. Which means they’re usually frowning or scratching their chin. It’s not like they can randomly start juggling.

I’ve previously written a blog post about the amount of times I used clichés to describe emotions. Fluttering hearts, taking a deep breath and sighing all appear an embarrassing number of times in an early draft of my manuscript.

The good news is, thanks to lots of books I’ve read recently, I’ve noticed MORE overused actions. The even better news is they’re in published fiction, so they can’t be too sinful. Maybe only if you use them on every page.

Check if your characters are doing any of my top 3 overused actions in fiction.

Is someone raking a hand through their hair?

A character getting their hand and having a good rake through their hair is happening an awful lot in the psychological thrillers I’ve read lately. This makes sense, right? Characters in psychological thrillers are super nervy because they might be the murderer, or they might be about to get murdered. Raking their hands through their hair demonstrates this anxiety. We get it.

However, more often that not I’ve noticed it’s a man who is raking a hand through his hair. This makes me wonder, do women not also rake their hands through their hair?

Go on, check your manuscripts or the book you’re currently reading. Bet someone is raking their fingers through their hair. Probably a man.

Is someone picking their nails?

This one particularly irks my Mum. She finds it very distracting.

And for some reason, having a character in a book who habitually pick their nails is having a huge rise in popularity. At one point I read three books in a row and they all had a serial nail-picker.

If there’s no one picking their nails or their nail polish, you will definitely find someone examining their nails, or chewing them, drumming them against something, digging them into their palms, etc. At the very least, attention will be drawn to their colour or condition.

But why are they picking them? Stop it. It’s gross.

Is someone furrowing their brow?

Brows furrow so much in books. In fact, fiction is positively rife with furrowed brows and furrowing of the general brow and facial area.

It’s got me wondering, can anything else furrow? It sounds like something a small animal would do, but perhaps I’m confused with burrow.

I checked some of the classics to see if we could blame anyone for the onslaught of furrowed brows in fiction. Would you believe I found a furrowed brow in Jane Eyre? Not to mention, a hollow that’s deeply furrowing a brown moorside! So other things can furrow! I feel at peace.

And if it’s not a furrowed brow, it’s a heavily knitted one.

Now I’ve noticed all the hair being raked, the fingernails being picked, and the brows being furrowed, they cannot be unnoticed. Henceforth, I must remove them from my own manuscript. I’m getting out my Emotion Thesaurus to find better ways of describing these anxious actions.

Confession time! How many hair-raking, fingernail-picking, brow-furrowers do you have in your story? Or is this something you’ve also noticed in the books you’ve been reading? Tell all in the comments below.

One thought on “Top 3 Overused Actions in Fiction

  1. I don’t have characters in the manuscript I’m working on, with furrowed brows or hair raking. I do have someone biting her nails, it’s a nasty habit and she is trying hard to stop.
    Now you have pointed these three out I’ll be checking any books I read in the future for such nasties.


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