Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Delia Latham: Broken-Record Writing

With the advent of cassette tapes and CDs, the term “broken record” is fast becoming obsolete - or, at the very least, one of those terms that later generations will continue to use with no idea what it really means, or how the phrase came to be. I’m hoping most people still know what it means.

Even if the experience is not personal, most of us have heard the result of a scratched record. The needle gets hung in the scratch, the record keeps spinning, and the result is an annoying repetition of the same words—over and over…and over again.

It happens in writing, as well. Sometimes our characters’ repetitious actions make a reader crazy.

My heroes chuckle a lot. They grin when I can’t think of anything else for them to do. They love to “quirk” or “hike” an eyebrow. My ladies’ lips “curve upward in a smile” way too often.

I recently read a rough draft chapter for an author whose characters overused their hands. Every few sentences, an action tag involved the word “hands.” She wrung her hands. He ran a hand through his hair. Their hands touched. He stuffed his hands into his pockets. She placed a hand over her mouth.

Talk about your broken record! A whole book of that would have me breaking the record over the hero’s head.

A friend admitted that she uses coffee as a tool for too much of the action in her story. He poured himself a cup of coffee. She wrapped her cold fingers around the hot mug. He sipped the hot brew. She tasted the lukewarm liquid and set her cup back on the table. He put on another pot of coffee. If I consumed as much caffeine as these characters, I’d never sleep!

No author wants a reputation for being a broken record writer. I certainly don’t. So how can we avoid overusing expressions and actions to the point that our readers want to throw our books against the nearest wall?

People communicate their internal feelings in many different ways. Non-verbal communication can be one of a writer’s strongest tools, if used with discretion. According to some studies, body language accounts for fifty-five percent of communication, so we definitely should use it to make our characters more real. Experts have found that certain actions usually indicate specific frames of mind, though some are interchangeable.

Is she lying? These actions might give the reader a hint: 
  •      Avoiding eye contact by looking down or away
  •      Using her hand to touch her face or head
  •      Holding something in front of her body, like a barrier
  •      Smiling insincerely (lips and mouth only, it won’t reach the eyes)
  •      Shuffling her feet
  •      Clenching her jaw
  •      Licking her lips

Has something captured his attention? Non-verbal signs might include: 
  •     Direct eye contact
  •     A nod
  •     Tilted (or cocked) head
  •     Leaning forward
  •     Dilated pupils

 Is your character bored? She will show it by: 
  •     Turning her body slightly away
  •     Looking around, but not directly at the person or object of boredom
  •     Glancing at her watch
  •     Tapping her fingers or toes
  •     Shifting weight from one foot to the other
  •     Yawning 
If she’s attracted to someone, she’ll do the following: 
  •     Blink rapidly
  •     Lean toward the person she’s attracted to
  •     Mirror the other person’s actions
  •     Adjust her clothing; smooth her hair; clean her  glasses (some form of unconscious preening)
  •     Stare
  •     Raise her eyebrows, even if only for a second or  two
Is he undecided? He’ll probably: 
  •     Stroke his chin, rub his cheek or forehead
  •     Scratch the back of his head or neck
  •     Narrow his eyes
  •     Purse his lips
  •     Tilt his head
  •     Wrinkle his nose 
Nervous people might: 
  •     Blink rapidly (Aha! Some actions are duplicated  across multiple mindsets)
  •     Clear their throats
  •     Wring their hands
  •     Fidget
  •     Massage their temples
  •     Adjust their collars
  •     Cross their arms
  •     Clench their jaws or show other signs of muscle tension 
Is your character angry? Describe it with: 
  •     Clenched fists
  •     Frowning
  •     Baring teeth (snarling)
  •     Narrowing eyes
  •     Placing hands (or fists) on hips, feet spread 
Have a hero who wants to dominate? He will: 
  •     Walk in brisk strides
  •     Place his hands on his hips, and maybe spread  his feet
  •     Raise his eyebrows
  •     Clasp his hands behind his head
  •     Narrow his eyes

A mountain of information is available on body language and its interpretations. If you’re in danger of too much repetition in your characters’ actions, a little Internet research could pay big dividends. Learn about body language and prevent your characters from becoming robotic and repetitive…your readers from going justifiably insane…and yourself from being a broken record writer.

Delia Latham
© 2010

DELIA LATHAM is a born-and-bred California gal, raised in a place called Weedpatch and currently living in the lovely mountain town of Tehachapi with her husband and a spoiled Pomeranian. She enjoys multiple roles as Christian wife, mother, grandmother, sister and friend, but especially loves being a princess daughter to the King of Kings. She has a "thing" for Dr. Pepper, and loves to hear from her readers. Contact her through her website or send an e-mail to delia@delialatham.net. Find her also at the following online locations:


  1. Great list, Delia! I saved it for future reference!


  2. Great hints, Delia! I saved it too! I tend to use eyes too much but only because it's what I do. They truly are the window to the soul and it drives me crazy when someone can't look me in the eye at least some of the time.

    1. I'm an "eye" person, as well, Donna. And someone who refuses to meet my eyes turns me into a serious basket case. It even bothers me when I watch a conversation between others, and one of the parties won't make eye contact. lol (Talk about your nosy observer!)

  3. Commenting late, Delia, but wanted to thank you for this practical guide to better writing. Body language speaks volumes, but I worry that all my characters will share (in addition to their faith) the same bad habits.

  4. Hi, Julia! I'm glad you enjoyed the article, and hope it helps. I think we all share your concern (and some of us have good reason to!). :)