I enjoy the study of body language and never thought I’d suggest anyone avoid mentioning a character’s body language in fiction. But if that body language description is ordinary and overused, it’s a weasel word or phrase as harmful to the quality of the writing as any other.
If it can be misinterpreted, that’s even worse.
In the first draft of a manuscript, I often depend on the verb “smiled.” I’m in a hurry and don’t stop to think of a better description for such a common action. Critique buddies are quick to point out that failing, for which I’m grateful, and I correct the problem on the revise. Or I mean to. Reading over my releases, I still see more instances of “smiled” than I am comfortable with.
You may think, what’s wrong with “smiled”?
As far as body language goes, a smile can convey a lot of things in addition to happiness: deception, nervousness, physical discomfort, romantic or sexual interest, pleasure over someone else’s pain. The meaning of the smile changes when used in context with other body language–movement or position of the eyes or brows, positions of the hands or limbs, or whole body stance.
Besides, a reader may just-plain-get-tired of reading the same word or phrase over and over. I once edited a political thriller for a gentleman, now deceased. All of his characters—protagonist, antagonist, and minor characters alike—“smiled broadly” or “grinned broadly” no matter whether they were happy about something good or evil or perhaps experiencing a different emotion altogether. After the first few instances, all I could picture in my mind was someone with a big, stupid, toothy grin on his face each time I encountered either phrase. If I had been reading for pleasure, I may have discarded the book.
Merriam-Webster online defines a weasel word as “a word used in order to avoid being clear or direct.” In other words, the use of a word to deceive. For writers, add this definition: a lazy word used because we are unwilling or unable to create a better description. In a way, that’s deceiving—perhaps misleading or cheating—our readers.
Each writer owns a personal set of weasel words—those words used as a crutch to fall back on when we are tired or in a hurry or not at our creative best. In addition to “smiled,” search your manuscript (or a published novel!) for body-action verbs such as “walked.” More than you would’ve guessed, right?
Choosing more precise body language description reveals much more about a character, his emotions or intentions, and a scene or setting’s mood. As a reader that’s important to me, particularly at the opening of a scene.
Is there a passage from your work in progress that contains a weasel word or phrase to convey body language? Which emotion or intention of the character would you like to express in a better defined and more creative way?
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