She smiled, he frowned, someone else did something I can’t remember…

I was reading a post on Nathan Bransford’s blog where he was discussing author’s bad habits.  One of the ones he mentioned was using the same words too often.  I mean how many times can someone smile on the same page?  Same chapter, yes, maybe there can be a few, but…well, you get the idea.

So I went back through a few of my chapters to see if I make that same mistake.  In general, I think I’m all right.  As far as each individual chapter goes, I don’t repeat too much.  That said, in the book overall, I’m wondering if there are some things I repeat a lot.  For example:  there are a number of places in my story where the main character is frustrated.  What do people do when they’re frustrated?  They take a deep breath to try and calm down.  They throw their hands in the air.  They shake their head in frustration.  They pace.  There are only so many believable things people do.  Coming up with new and creative ways to say it or even different ideas that convey the message someone’s frustrated is difficult.  I can’t just say, “He’s frustrated.”  Where’s the showing in that?

Another example that comes to mind is a scene where everyone’s happy.  They’re laughing and smiling, right?  But I can’t just write “laugh” and “smile” every two sentences.  I have to convey the tone and message that everyone’s happy without actually saying it too much.  You understand the dilemma.  Hopefully, there are some of you other writers out there who understand.  What do you do?

6 thoughts on “She smiled, he frowned, someone else did something I can’t remember…

  1. Ha! I love the title of this post. I have this problem, too. My characters all seem to have a propensity to “sigh” quite often (not sure what this says about the stories — maybe the characters are suffering from boredom ;)). Good dialouge can help erase the need to add these types of descriptors…great action, too.


  2. Boy, do we all struggle with this! It can be downright scary to reread a passage and see the rollercoaster (smile, frown, smile, frown)…for me, it’s too many looks–looks hard, glares, fixes his gaze, etc…Sometimes I’ll just go through a scene and take out all the descriptions–and sometimes I’m shocked how little I want/need to put back in. I’m always reminding myself (as with dialog tags) that the dialog itself should do a lot of the work to indicate the mood of the speaker–but those tags are so comfy to use!


  3. Great article! By the way, could you add a subscriptions button? I don’t know when you update!!!!!

    Anyway, my critique partner calls repetative words: Echoes. She gets real annoyed with ’em and so always point it out to me. We, the writers, might not notice it as much. But the readers do. Even for big words that are rarely used, if used more than once, readers notice.

    Hmmm about the expressions and sounds that people commonly make–use variations. Just as there are synonyms for many common words. For example, let’s use AMUSEMENT:

    -John laughed. “You’re real funny, you know that?”
    -“You’re real funny,” John said, laughing. “You know that?” (Moving the dialogue tag helps a lot too so it’s not as obvious)
    -John chuckled. “You’re real funny, you know that?”
    -Mirth sparkled in John’s eyes. “You’re real funny, you know that?”
    -John smiled. “You’re real funny, you know that?”
    -The corner of John’s lips lifted. “Your…………

    …………and my fingers are getting tired now. But you get the gist. Observe the people around you. There’s more than one way to show something.


    1. Thanks June. I do have a subscription button, it’s just down in one of the footers. Maybe I should move it up.

      Thanks for the comment. I’ve used very similar versions of your example many, many times. And I really have checked individual chapters to make sure someone doesn’t run their hand through their hair too many times. I guess my biggest worry is that if they do it three or four times throughout the entire book, is that too many?


  4. Great post and dead on! I was just thinking about this the other day when I was revising my manuscript; apparently my character is angry a lot and keeps ‘looking angry’. Of course I had to go all the way back and tried to find new ways of showing anger. We can’t just keep saying, “he was frustrated, she looked angry, he laughed, she smiled”…


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