Sarah J. Carlson

Contemporary Young Adult Author

Non-writers just don’t understand: How many different ways can I possibly show a character smile?


sighOkay, so for the record, I only used “sigh” 26 times so that meme is a hyperbole (my fancy word for the day). Anyway, I entered Hooligans in Shining Armour into writing competition called “Pitch Wars”. You submit your query and first chapter to four mentors. Mentors each pick one manuscript and help the writer whip it into shape to submit to an agent round in November.

I’m brushing up my manuscript. One of the things I like to do is search words and phrases to make sure I’m not being too repetitive: sigh, smile, grin, rolled my eyes, pissed up, icy fingers, etc. All writers have words or phrases that they slip into using too frequently. I’m trying to spot mine find more interesting ways to express them. In this MS, a lot of them are related to describing either emotion or drinking (lol, my hooligans drink A LOT). My novel’s written in first person. I’ve been working hard on using body language to show emotion of non-POV characters, rather than labeling the emotion or using sadly. I’m also trying word dialogue to imply tone, and use tone to show emotion.

Here’s the phrase I’m sprucing up now: She pursed her lips and sighed. “If your dad was arrested…” The character is feeling torn. She wants to help Fiona but she legally can’t, and she doesn’t want Fiona to take it into her own hands. It actually doesn’t sound too bad, except I’m watching how often I use the word “sigh”. Also she just pursed her lips and now she’s talking.

Here’s my #1 contender for spruced-up version: She pressed her fingers to her forehead. Her fingernails had been painted nude. “Fiona, if your Dad was arrested…”

That took me at least ten minutes come up with. I’m still mulling over “Her fingernails had been painted nude.” It feels a bit passive to me. Amazing how many tiny things go in to sculpting a novel.

you dont even knowOne way I get inspiration for non-verbals is through reading. I write down good ones I find. Obviously, I don’t copy them, but they give me a starting place. I also use the power of the internet and pin good resources so I don’t lose them. Check out my Craft of Writing board!

Have you ever tried searching words in your WIP to check repetition? What word or phrase do you overuse?

20 thoughts on “Non-writers just don’t understand: How many different ways can I possibly show a character smile?

  1. christineplouvier

    Twenty-six sighs, out of how many scenes? How many words? How many pages?

    As a reader, I wonder, “What the heck difference does it make, what color her nails were painted?” As a writer, I notice that you’ve just laid Chekhov’s Gun on the sideboard: there’d better be a really good reason for us to know that her nails were painted with nude lacquer.

    Your original sentence is much better. There’s nothing wrong with pursing one’s lips before one says something. It’s not physically impossible to do.

    But if you’re really worried about it, you could make it, “She pursed her lips, and then sighed,” or “She pursed her lips, and then drew a deep breath, before she said,…” Those would introduce just enough of a pause to suggest that she’s thinking before she speaks. Or else, you could substitute, “She groaned, and then said,…”


    1. sjoycarlson Post author

      Hmmmm great advice! 26 times in 82,000 words. And I discovered there was another sigh like 2 paragraphs down that feels like it’s better-used. I’ll have to think on the nailpolish bit. Thanks for your input! Amazing how much thinking writers have to do. So much to consider!


      1. Cay

        If there’s another sigh two lines down, I agree. Otherwise I’m also not sure that it was a great improvement and I also got distracted by the color of her nails now.

        26 in 82 000 is nothing! I doubt anyone is going to notice that, except you. How about ‘really’, ‘just’, ‘walk (in all forms), ‘toward/towards’, ‘as if (tends to feature quite a bit when narrator observes others) and the dreaded over-use of ‘I’ when writing first person?

        But YES! A LOT of stuff to consider and re-consider. Then send out for beta reading, and consider and re-consider again. And…again?

        Good luck with the prep for pitchwars. I’m nowhere near that stage yet, but I really like the idea and hope I get to join in a couple of years or so.


  2. Eliza

    I completely feel your pain. This is one really challenging aspect of writing. There are several word counting sites where you paste in a chunk of text and it will analyse it for you, but I’d really like something to analyse my entire document for me, not just for repeated words but phrases and near-repetitions.


  3. Mishka Jenkins

    When writing the first draft I always just write something quick as well such as ‘sigh’ or ‘smiled’. Then in the edits I can go back and think of something much better 😀

    I tend to overuse looked, a lot! Always have to change that!


  4. Rachael C Marek

    I’m a huge fan of “sigh”ings too. And describing facial expressions in all their forms. In one of my scripts, I used the same endearment for nearly every character in dialogue, my dear, and didn’t realize until recently. I think one trick is to split your focus, by editing specific facets, not the whole; character, dialogue, scenes, etc. It’s easier in scripts because of format, but it might work for you too. Good luck!


    1. sjoycarlson Post author

      Great suggestion! I think that’s what I do, but not with the cognizance (my word of the day :P) as you. *sigh* just kidding. Anyway, happy editing or writing! Oh! And what was the term of endearment?


      1. Rachael C Marek

        Good word! Oops, I should’ve put quotes around it, “my dear” was said by all my characters, sometimes more than once. How I missed that, I have no idea…probably that “forest for the trees” scenario. And thank you, I’m in the midst of a write/rewrite jumbled sort of mess. We’ll see how it works out.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. phantomwriter143

    Yes, well all have our favorites. I’m a HUGE (and I mean HUGE) fan of the word ‘quirk’ in all its variations. I also like “shot daggers” when someone is giving the evil eye, so I’ve had to tone that down. There are so many things I look up and when I noticed repetition within one page, I search for that word in the whole manuscript and see when I can make it more exciting and fresh.

    I’m now following you on Pinterest. Love me some Pinterest. 🙂


    1. sjoycarlson Post author

      Haha shot daggers was a frequent flyer in a previous manuscript that’s hidden away. Yeah, I’m the same. When one strikes me on a page, I search the whole document and spice it up. Thanks for the pinterest follow! Hope it helps and I’ll follow you, too!


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