How to avoid overused body language in your writing

overused body language writing

Human communication is mostly nonverbal, so it makes sense to use plenty of body language, gestures, and facial expressions in our writing. Showing your characters’ emotions through their body language is also a wonderful way to avoid telling (More about showing vs. telling here). Instead of saying she was nervous, you could show her fiddling with her keys, for example.

But if you use the same body language over and over again, readers will start to notice—and become bored.

I’ve read manuscripts in which the characters seemed to smile fifteen times on each page. Or they nodded so often that they came across like bobbleheads.

 

What descriptions of body language do writers overuse most often?

Every writer has their own go-to descriptors, but the ones I find most often in manuscripts are:

  • bit his/her lip

  • blinked

  • blushed/blush

  • breathe/breath (e.g., held her/his breath, took a deep breath, breath hitched, blew out a breath, calming breath)

  • chuckled

  • cleared her/his throat

  • clenched her/his fists

  • crossed her/his arms

  • eyes (e.g., rolled his/her eyes, narrowed his/her eyes, squinted, eyes widened, eyes twinkled, eyes lit up, etc.)

  • eyebrow/eyebrows (e.g., eyebrows arched, lifted, raised, waggled)

  • frowned/frown

  • furrowed her/his brow

  • gazed/gaze

  • glanced/glance

  • grimaced/grimace

  • grinned/grin

  • laughed/laugh

  • licked his/her lips

  • looked/look

  • nodded/nod—I especially cringe every time I read nodded her/his head. What else would they nod? Their knees?

  • pressed her/his lips together

  • ran her/his hand through his/her hair

  • reached out (a hand)

  • shook her/his head

  • shrugged/shrug—shrugged her shoulders is especially cringeworthy. “Shrug” already implies that she’s moving her shoulders, so “her shoulders” is redundant.

  • sighed/sigh, especially “sigh of relief”

  • smiled/smile

  • smirked/smirk

  • snorted/snort

  • stared/stare

  • swallowed

  • tilted his/her head

  • winked/wink

 

How do you avoid overusing certain gestures or facial expressions in your writing?

  • First of all, find out your go-to body language descriptors. Most writers have at least a couple of them that they overuse. Are your characters blinking every time you want to show that they are confused or clenching their fists whenever they are angry? The list above could be a good starting point. Add to it every time you find yourself overusing a certain gesture or facial expression. During the revision process, do a search for each phrase on your list.

  • Search for all forms of these words. For example, smile, smiling, smiled, etc.

  • If a piece of body language doesn’t add anything, take it out. That’s often the case with shook her/his head or nodded when the dialogue already makes it clear that the character agrees or disagrees.

Example:

Betty nodded. “Sure. I can do that.”

Rewrite:

“Sure,” Betty said. “I can do that.”

  • Take a look at your dialogue. Is it interrupted too often by meaningless descriptions of body language that interrupt the flow of the conversation? If it is, take some of them out and convey the emotions through the dialogue itself.

  • Sometimes, you can replace an overused word with a synonym, but most of the time, that might not be the best solution. If you replace smiled with grinned, for example, you might trade one overused word for another.

  • Replace some of the overused body language with more original descriptions.

Example:

She raised her eyebrows.

Rewrite:

She nailed him with a you’re-full-of-shit look.

  • Think about the emotion you are trying to convey. What other, less overused gestures or facial expressions could convey the same emotion?

  • Become a good observer. What do the people you meet in your everyday life do when they are angry, confused, surprised, sad, impatient, etc.? You might come up with a couple of fresh descriptions by people-watching. For example, a friend of mine scratches off the label of any nearby bottle whenever she’s nervous.

  • Do all of your characters use the same gestures and facial expressions? If one of them has a signature gesture, make sure the other characters express their emotions in a different way. For example, the protagonist in my current work-in-progress is shy, so she blushes a lot. During the revision process, I’ll make sure that none of the other characters blush more than once or twice in the book. I’ll have to find another way to describe them whenever they are embarrassed.

  • Punch up your prose! Sometimes, you can keep the word but make it more interesting by adding to the description.

Example:

She glared.

Rewrite:

Her glare could have turned bread to toast from fifty yards away.

  • Don’t overdo it. Sometimes, less is more. Our goal is not to avoid simple descriptions of body language such as she glared or she nodded entirely but to avoid overusing them, especially on the same page.

  • Every now and then, a prop (object) that characters interact with can help you convey their emotions.

Example:

She nervously bit her lip.

Rewrite:

She coiled a loose string from her T-shirt around her finger, unraveled it, then did it again.

What body language and facial expressions do you typically overuse in your writing? Tell us in the comments!

17 thoughts on “How to avoid overused body language in your writing”

  1. I try to use ‘verbalised’ body language as sparingly as the word ‘said’. I also try very hard not to use all the various different ways of describing verbal or non verbal communication, preferring to avoid it at all unless it adds to the story. These are padding structures, mostly.

    Examples such as yours in the article add value. Or they add value if the rest of the story works with them present. Toasting bread is much more fiery than a simple glare, but toasting glare girl also needs that personality in order to carry ot off.

    Reply
    • I think it very much depends on the genre you write. If you write romance novels, as I do, describing body language and facial expressions is important. You just have to do it in an interesting way instead of using fifteen “she smiled” on every page.

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  2. I think my characters shrug a lot. And grin. I’ll go back through my WIP with a fine tooth comb now and make sure I take most of them out. I do love a good shit-eating grin. Great example!

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  3. Interesting how different writers overuse different words, isn’t it? Muses and purrs is not on my personal list, but I bet there are other writers who use them too often too.

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  4. As I polished my second novel (published two years ago), I applied tips like these ruthlessly. I ended up with a list of over 200 words and phrases that I overused. Yes, it took time to cross-check that I wasn’t swapping one over-used word for another. This included avoiding the pitfall of introducing ‘purple prose’ or ornate verbiage (courtesy of the thesaurus), just to use a different word or phrase.

    It took loads of time and it was tedious, but the results were worth it. (I should confess that I became a terrier when I went after these – tenacious, snapping and digging at it constantly, actually enjoying the challenge. But then again, I’m like that. Not everyone is.)

    Anything worth doing is worth the hard work to do it well. (And I’ve never found that hard work does me any damage.)

    Reply
  5. I’ve been struggling with this even as I’m doing it! So much shrugging and lip biting and head cocking going on!!

    I’ve basically given up on trying to fix it in draft – just noted it’s a problem and will deal with it in the first edit. Which I am looking forward to and dreading all at the same time!

    Reply
    • Using shortcuts like these in the first draft is just fine. The real magic happens during the revision process anyway :-)

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  6. Thanks for the good information. I purchased you the “Show don’t tell” book. That is a real problem for me. Thanks!!

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  7. My characters tend to nod, turn their heads, walk away. I’ll have to teach them to do other stuff. I love the examples you give – great article!

    Reply
  8. I notice I have several overused descriptives in my writing. When I go back over, I try to fix these and Angela Ackerman’s Emotion Thesaurus is excellent. Since I don’t use profanity in my stories it becomes challenging to show certain emotions. I am now trying to move into a deeper POV showing. First drafts are to get the story told, and critique groups help also. Others see things that we sometimes are blinded to.

    Reply
    • I agree. In the first draft, get it written. In the second/third/fourth draft, get it right :-)

      And I also second the recommendation of the Emotion Thesaurus and the rest of Angela Ackerman’s series.

      Reply

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