Tears And Smiles

When I was a sophomore in high school, I had a history teacher who had a verbal tick — that is, he repeated a pet phrase over and over and over. Honestly, I don’t remember what it was he said (something like “on a daily basis” or “so to speak”), but I do remember that on some days, a group of us would keep a running tally to see how many times he resorted to his standby. The very repetition of his words distracted us from his intent.

Novelists can distract readers in the same way by giving their characters stock or repeated responses to their circumstances. Two overused emotional reactions are crying and smiling.

Earlier this year, in a blog post about what fiction editors look for, agent Rachelle Gardner took a look at characters. Among the list of excellent points, she included this:

Avoid overstated emotion. For example, a single tear can be more effective than a dramatic breakdown. (Rachelle’s rule: a protagonist should never cry more than once in a book!) [font color change added for emphasis]

That resonated with me. I’d read a novel not so long ago that drove me nuts because every character, men as well as women, cried over everything. I mean, everything! They cried if they were worried, fearful, excited, grieving, in love, in hate, when they were tempted, when they were worshiping.

The fact is, people do cry in all those circumstances and more. But in the same way that characters have individual physical features and particular voices, they have unique mannerisms and expressions of emotion. Not everyone will “choke back a tear.” Not everyone will have “a tear squeeze from her eye” or “slide down her cheek.” Some people go stoic rather than cry in public. Some people use tricks to stop themselves from crying, like biting the inside of their cheek or taking a drink or making a joke. Some people try to hide the fact that they’re crying and others call attention to it: “Oh, look at me acting like such a big baby.”

The point is, expressions of emotion need to be as varied as the author’s cast of characters. No two people feel exactly the same about the unique circumstances they go through, and their unique personalities mean they will respond differently even if the circumstances are similar.

Smiling is the same as crying. Some characters smile when they meet someone new, when they get a raise, when their boyfriend brings them flowers, when dinner is ready, when they wake in the morning, when they turn down the bed at night, when the police arrest the villain, when the mom lets the son drive the car home, and on and on.

The sad thing about so much smiling is that it weakens the expression of emotion. Some things deserve a smile. Some things don’t.

Further, smile has a number of good synonyms, each with a nuance, that can add meaning to the emotional expression in the scene. Consider these alternatives, for example: beam, grin, dimple, twinkle; smirk, simper; leer.

The key when depicting a character expressing emotion is to know what that particular individual will do in that particular circumstance.

An outgoing, expressive character, for instance, may still behave in a reserved way at a funeral for someone he doesn’t know well. Or a shy person may act rather effusive if someone she knows and loves is getting married to the man of her dreams.

But if she is effusive at the bridal shower, at the rehearsal dinner, at the wedding, at the reception, when the couple returns from their honeymoon … quite frankly, most readers aren’t going to believe this character is shy. In addition, if her expression of joy is the same in each of those settings, readers may dread seeing her name in the opening sentence of a paragraph, because quite frankly, even effusive expression becomes boring when it is overused.

In summary, keep these in mind:

    * Emote with care. 😉
    * Avoid overusing emotional responses such as crying or smiling.
    * Particularize your character’s emotional response based on their personality and the circumstances into which you’ve put them.
    *Finally, stretch your vocabulary so that your prose has variety.


Filed under Action, Characters, Word Use

4 responses to “Tears And Smiles

  1. My sister and I did the same thing once, Becky, except it was a young revival speaker and the phrase “You know.” I agree completely: unintended repetition of phrases and emotions leads to wooden characters and reader annoyance.

  2. Ha! I remember a critique partner years ago saying, “I don’t know, Sally. There’s a lot of smiling going on here.” Every character on the page smiled as an action beat to save me from saying he said/she said.

    Great post.

    But in the book I’m trying to sell now, my girl cries several times. She really bawls. Probably six times in 400 pages. But she has a very hard life. I’m not sure if Rachelle’s rules would work. I’ll have to give those passages another look-see.

  3. I’m not in agreement with the cry-once rule, but I think it’s good for us to look at the crying in our books and think about whether or not it is 1) warranted; 2) done in an understated rather than overly dramatic way; 3) providing a unique expression of our character’s emotion. I find that too often, as you pointed out in the scenario you recounted, Sally, crying and smiling may just be handy — and we need to be wary of taking the easy way out. Good writing, after all, is work. 😀


  4. Now that you say this, Michelle, I wonder if “you know” wasn’t the phrase we were counting.

    The thing about oft repeated phrases is that speakers and writers are most likely unaware they use them. I just heard yesterday a sermon on the radio and the preacher said someone contacted him complaining about his oft used phrase “my beloved.” And sure enough, as he began his explanation of the term, he started, “My beloved.” He heard himself and so did the audience. He paused and they chuckled.

    In fiction, I think it’s fine to give characters those ticks, but we get into trouble when we give all our characters our ticks rather than letting them have their own.


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