Shrugging and Pursing

by Michelle Gagnon

Kathleen’s hilarious post on Tuesday about bad metaphors reminded me of something.

I always hit a point about halfway through each novel where my characters start doing an inordinate amount of shrugging. Seriously, if I don’t catch it in time, they’re all running around jiggling their shoulders up and down a few times a page. For whatever reason, toward the end of Act 2, I draw a blank on anything other than my go-to physical mannerisms.

So a significant chunk of the editing process for me involves sitting there and trying to come up with things people do with their mouths aside from pursing their lips. Or frequently gesturing behind themselves. Or indiscriminately pointing at things like the cast of a Broadway musical (that one was for you, Kathleen).

So today’s challenge is to share your ringers, the default ways in which you describe your characters and how they behave: physical mannerisms, looks, etc.

Aside from the ones I’ve already mentioned, here’s my list:

  • She chewed her lip pensively
  • He grimaced.
  • She rolled her eyes (An overly literal reviewer once claimed that there was no such thing as “eye rolling,” unless you physically pulled out your eyes and rolled them across a table. I rolled my eyes at that).
  • He lunged for the door (lots o’ lunging in my rough drafts. My characters lunge for everything, from beer to bombs).
  • He gulped hard.
  • She polished her glasses on the hem of her shirt. (None of my characters carry tissues or handkerchiefs, and yet many of them wear glasses that require constant polishing. Odd).
  • He grinned. (Must find more synonyms for smiling. At the moment, my WIP is filled with Chesire Cats).

Mind you, many of these are fine if used sparingly. It only becomes a problem when the manuscript is riddled with the same types of description.

So let’s hear yours…and please feel free to add humor…


24 thoughts on “Shrugging and Pursing

  1. His jaw dropped.
    Her heart pounded.
    My worse: Her snorted reply was most unladylike.

    Uh-oh, Michelle. I’d better go check my WIP! LOL!

    xox, Kathleen

  2. Grin and grimace for sure for me but that’s partly because of some of my characters. I haven’t noticed anything else yet.

    I looked for a list of facial expressions / gestures / behaviors and I never found one useful for writers. So I began one. I think there is a need for such a list to prevent what Michelle described and also to offer alternatives to prevent overuse.

    So, here’s the link to the Google Doc. Note the different tabs. I’m making access public so anyone can add and edit.

    Killzoners: Do you think this is a useful reference? Will you add to the lists? Any suggestions for improvement? Note that I will be mostly away from my computer for the next few days at BRMCWC (The Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. 😀 (Shortened for convenience)

  3. For me it’s eyebrows. They shoot up, they bunch together. Sometimes one of them arches. Sometimes they both arch. They often furrow.

    Can’t get enough of those eyebrows.

  4. Cocking or raising of one eyebrow and jaw clenching…oh and wetting of lips. Geez what kind of crap am I writing!

  5. I tend to use eye rolling and shrugging quite a bit. I save that stuff to go back and fix later.

  6. “If she wanted to engage the only brain he had, all she had to do was unzip it and free Willy.”

    Channeling my character, I didn’t even know I’d written that line until my sister hosted a launch party at her home and posted that line on the wall of her bathroom. Now I can’t forget it.

    I have reliables like others have mentioned. Narrowing eyes, furrowing brows, crooking lips, shrugs, nods, and yes, pursed lips. I like the visuals and often use them to puncuate my one-liner humor. The single raised eyebrow works for that, but for an added degree of difficulty, try the double gesture with a head that cocks at will, like a bobblehead.

    I better take another look at my WIP. Drat!

  7. Ah yes, the eyebrows. How could I have forgotten the overly active eyebrows. And those hearts, they just won’t stop pounding, will they? Usually sending blood rushing through veins and all that…
    Heads are constantly cocked to the side, too. And I noticed in my read through yesterday that my characters were doing a lot of “swiveling.” Apparently they double as office chairs.
    I like the idea of a list, Daniel. That would be helpful.
    Jordan- oh my, that laugh was a great way to start the day.

  8. But I think the all time winner is the number of fictional characters who released the breath they didn’t know they’d been holding. If I had a dollar for every time I saw that phrase, I’d be able to quit my day job and work full time on the writing.

  9. Clenched her fists (or jaw).
    Shoulders tensed.
    Rolled her eyes.

    My worse: a chill shot down her spine. If I don’t watch it, that can happen on every page. Thank you for the fun post!

  10. for me it’s shrugging, for sure. the dumb thing is, people don’t even shrug very much in real life

  11. One of my characters recently ended up hospitalized with sprained eye sockets from a too quick brow arch followed by an eye-roll and an ill time scrunch. Cosmetic surgery may be required to fix her expression.

    My other characters lurch, jump and glare a bit excessively.

    Kathleen’s unladylike snort made me laugh. I can’t put that in a book. My wife’s youngest aunt is a very lovely, petite woman, extremely fashion conscious and with a lithe dancer’s body who snorts when she laughs. WHen I say snort, I mean her laugh starts as a whispery snicker that on the third or forth syllable quite unexpectedly erupts into a loogie snot sucking snort that if not instantly checked bursts into what can only be described as a full blown Mississippi giant hogs in dumpster heaven snort fest that ranges in at shotgun level decibels of snot snortin’ glory. That of course throws everyone else in the room into fits of hysteria.

    Our family get togethers are like a tsunami of lurch jumping, eye rolling, face scrunching, brow arching, glaring, hog snorting insanity.

  12. She pushed up her glasses.
    She took a drag of her cigarette.
    My characters are big time smilers too.

    On a somewhat unrelated note, how do you authors feel about another writer paying homage to your work in theirs? I asked this question on one of Jordan’s posts and didn’t really get much feedback. MY WIP is partially an homage to Eric Van Lustbader and Barry Eisler’s series. Two scenes are very similar to ones in their books. Is that grounds for legal action? Can I be sued? I’m quite concerned at this point and am considering scratching those scenes completely. Any direction would be greatly appreciated.

  13. Fletch–I didn’t respond with a lot about that, because I don’t know how much you’ve used from their work. (TWO RAISED EYEBROWS insert here) Wording? tactics? Killing methodology? You may think of it as homage, but a reader might only see it as JAW DROPPING plagarism.

    I’ve seen authors who really know each other, give a wink and a nod to each other’s work in their current book with small references of their books or characters’ names, but I see that as a mutual admiration thing and not what you’ve described.

    Recently I bought a YA book for my niece (who GRINNED), but after she finished reading it, she SIGHED and told me the author copied almost verbatim, one line from a very popular series. I didnt catch that, but she did. That author dropped a notch in my mind. (SHOULDER SLUMP) What we do is creative and supposed to be original. There’s even wording in our contracts that states this so the publisher is protected from any liability. For the most part, that book was, but when I heard about the nearly copied line, it made me wonder what else might be unoriginal in there.

    For me personally, I would rather avoid anything that might get a RAISED EYEBROW from others in the industry. Some may only SHRUG and not make a big deal, but lately I’ve seen authors take really close wording from specific setttings and scenes and this came out when text is scanned by groups that watch this sort of thing. Authors have been really embarrassed over this when the two scenes are posted together. You can imagine what the publisher had to say when the bad press got out. These kinds of things go viral too.

    So you be the judge. Could this happen to you, given what’s in your work? And how do you think any publisher might feel if this kind of thing came out after the book was released? No matter how good intentioned you may be about paying respect to these authors, readers might misconstrue your work.

    Personally, I’d avoid any perception of impropriety. You’re good enough that you don’t need the help or the bad press, Fletch.

  14. “He paused to consider.” “After a pause, she took a sip of her drink.” I insert so many pauses, tics, sniffs and shrugs that my characters frequently seem to be in need of medication. I always do a pass to pare down these offenders before final edit.

  15. Jordan, thanks for the feedback. Wording is definitely not the issue. I’ve been very careful to make sure NO sentences are plagiarized. There IS a character with the last name Eisler, as well as one with the last name Van Lustbader, however. And I use similar tactics for two kills, but they’re not exactly the same. The settings are completely different from the original works, and I make direct references to those books when I’m setting up the kills. For example, one assassination is done on a yacht that is named after the book the original kill was done in. So I’m not trying to hide that these two scenes are homages. I’m just concerned that even that can be considered plagiarism.

  16. (Did Blogger eat this one?)

    For me, it’s all about the eyebrows. They bunch. They arch. They furrow. Sometimes it’s one, sometimes it’s both. Sometimes they have emotions all their own (they twist in disdain; they jump in surprise).

    A little non-verbal repartee spices up a story. But if I find myself taking longer to describe a character’s facial expressions than if she’d just said, “I find that hard to believe”, I reconsider that passage seriously.

  17. Blogger seems to have suffered a major meltdown the last couple of days–some posts and comments disappeared. Blogger has posted a message saying everything is in the process of being restored. Maybe it’s a Friday the 13th thing?

  18. My characters hold up a hand to signal for the other person to stop talking. A lot. It’s rather annoying. Also I’m an arched eyebrow person too.

  19. Michelle –
    This post was trashed by the blogosphere. please run again(next week perhaps?). I was eagerly awaiting additional input from you and others.
    btw – in my first draft there’s more nodding heads than a bobble-head doll factory.
    thanks –


Comments are closed.