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What do you mean by writing crutch, SE?
I mean something like those words we overuse (that, suddenly, like) but in the realm of scene setting and action beats your characters go through. Here are some examples of common writing crutches/habits/aids.
- Dramatic sighs.
- Locked eyes/gazes
- Hearts leaping and/or pounding
- Letting out a breath they didn’t know they were holding (looking at you, YA)
- Throats closing/clenching
- Stomachs jumping, clenching, or sinking
- Furrowed brows
- Laughing, chuckling, snorting or otherwise indicating amusement the same way every single time
- Shrugging while rolling eyes
- Licking lips
- Nodding or shaking heads
Each of us has a writing prop or three we turn to when it’s time to throw in an action beat. It’s universal, and unavoidable. I’m in the process of editing and revisions for my latest finished MS, running headlong into all of my own writing props, and so this topic is very much on my mind right now. Oh wow do I have a repetitive range of action beats I reach for in almost every situation! Most of the time we don’t see we’re using the same descriptions until we enter the process of editing and realize ‘omg my character is constantly shrugging! Why are you always shrugging, you shrugging shrugger?!’
How do I fix this? What are my options? There are only so many ways to get those action beats in, you know!
Experts have done scientific study things, as they do, and most of them agree that somewhere between 70% and 93% of human communication involves nonverbal cues. Most of us pick up on them without even noticing we’re doing it.
So one possible solution for this issue is to start paying careful, close, almost stalker-ish attention to the nonverbal communication going on around us, and then apply the findings to your action beats.
As I’m revising I find it helpful to search out each repetitive behavior in my book, highlight it, and try to figure out what I was conveying with those actions. I condense it down to the main emotional beat or emphasis I was going for, and with that base in mind I go people hunting.
NO, NOT LITERALLY. CALM DOWN.
Then I like to watch a movie or show and make a special note of how I’m seeing the emotion I got stuck on. Movies have the luxury of being visual and using that nonverbal communication we take for granted. As authors, we have to take the long way around and describe it so that the reader’s nonverbal communication radar is activated. Get as many examples as you can to draw off of when it’s time to write your character experiencing that emotion. Jot down notes, even. (What are all those empty notebooks for, after all?) Then filter it through your character’s quirks and personality as you kick away your writing crutches and revise your manuscript.
*NOTE* I’m not saying to get rid of every single generic description ever in your book. A) it’s not happening and B) sometimes they’re the quickest way to convey a scene to your reader and there’s no need to complicate it. And they’re not bad things, per se, it’s when they become a repeated refrain there’s a problem. Also, you have your own voice and writing style which should always be respected!
Keeping that note in mind, let’s look at some action beat inspirations:
- One of my favorite actors to turn to for huge, grandiose, over-the-top, physical acting. Look at how his whole body is involved in making a humorous point.
- Yeah, she goes far beyond the usual narrowed eyes to express anger. Also, it’s hilarious. How would I describe this in a book? I think I’d start with the quick, agitated brush waving and move on to the gritted teeth underneath a wildly flared nose.
- So much going on here! Tim Curry’s body screams confidence, control, suspense, humor, excitement. That cocked shoulder. That perfectly timed pause, with the widened eyes. Those quirked lips.
- Data is a beautiful example of filtering a character’s physical reactions through their personality. What would be a fluid and natural gesture to a human is stilted, abrupt, and somehow off in the timing when an android does it.
- Rowan Atkinson is a living legend when it comes to pure face acting. Here you can see why. I swear even his ears get into the act. This is FAR beyond the usual furrowed brow!
- Johnny Lee Miller expresses an entire world of feeling simply by closing his eyes and lowering his head a little. I’m not crying, you’re crying.
Further reading: As well as having a nice, quick list of the more common generic reactions, author Nathan Bransford has a different, good fix for this same problem. I really recommend his article if you’re struggling like I am.
Such great advice, SE, but so very difficult to do in some instances. In my memoir about attending college as a mother of five, I find myself stumped trying to understand how I felt about certain circumstances without relying on the same old, same old. Thanks again for sharing your insight. Be safe!
Thank you! You and your family stay safe as well.
Great post. I know I have my things I fall back on. Like you said, it’s easy and quick. It’s what you’re used to. Trying to figure out how to convey a body action without being super over the top is a task, but as writers it’s what we do. Thanks for sharing.
You’re very welcome!
When I find those crutch words in my manuscript, I’m always like “how did I not realize I was using that word/phrase so many times?”
Great post! Thanks for sharing. 🙂
Oh good it’s not just me! That’s actually very comforting.
Well done. You gave me a lot to think about. 🙂
Anna from elements of emaginette
Always the goal. Thanks, Anna!
Great examples. I have to scrub my manuscript for that kind of thing every single time. But once you know your crutches, it’s easier to find them, at least.
Yes! I do know what to look for now. Of course it doesn’t stop me from leaning on them in the first place. *helpless shrug*
I love how you bring up the power of nonverbal communication. It’s true, we say more with our face and body than our mouths sometimes 🙂
It’s definitely a stumbling point for me, I rely so heavily on an already overused cache of reactions when there is so much more available! I figured it would be an issue for other authors, too.
Great list, I’ll add it to my checklist for editing 🙂 My characters are always rolling their eyes!
Mine are always laughing. You’d think I was trying to force a Pratchett novel! LOL. Oooh but now I need to re-read some Pratchett, he is a genius at this nonverbal communication.
Add for god’s sake, characters, stop touching your faces and wash those hands! 😛 Jk jk jk
I predict a sudden upswing in proper hygiene being highlighted in novels, starting in 2021. And a huge bump in post-apocalyptic sales. Humans are weird.