Don’t shrug this off.

24 May

by Biljana Likic


My vocabulary sucks.

Well alright, it doesn’t suck, but it could definitely use some work. I figured this out when I read through a 1500 word chapter the other day and found about twelve uses of the word “though”.

I supposed it’s a bit unfair, though, (<–hah) because that word only has so many synonyms. It’s worse when you have people repeating actions. In your head, they nod a lot because they agree with what’s happening. On paper, you start asking yourself why your characters have suddenly turned into bobble-heads.

These are some of the actions I constantly find my characters repeating:

  • Smirking
  • Raising an eyebrow
  • Grabbing (why is there so much grabbing!)
  • Eyes widening
  • Eyes narrowing
  • Eyes blinking once to express confusion, disbelief, and/or bemusement
  • Fingers curling into fists

So much shrugging.

There used to be a time where I would sit down to write a scene and a million different actions would come to mind to express amusement, or loftiness, or frustration. I’d have a mental list that was ten concepts long for actions denoting fear. Gradually, they became lists of five, then three, and then finally, the universal sign for fear simply became “Eyes widening” or “Heart pounding”.

But why? Why has my vocabulary of actions suddenly become so shit?

Because I’m not reading.

This is in no way sudden. Recently I’ve been so focussed on life and school and getting my own manuscript polished up that I haven’t had the chance to sit down and really read for enjoyment. It’s at the point where when I do read, I’ll come across things like “She looked at him sidelong,” sit up in excitement, and say, “I remember that! How could I forget that?” Then I’ll go back to my own MS and a few weeks later, while doing some quick once-over revisions, I’ll find that after so many pages into the story everybody begins to look at people sidelong. Then I’ll start yelling at them that they have necks for a reason and get frustrated with all my characters enough to scrap whole scenes. All because of my over-enthusiasm for remembering an action I’d forgotten.

Never before have I been so convinced that in order to write, you constantly have to read. Not that you can’t write if you don’t read, but your vocabulary will be much less rich. Sure, you can look up words and synonyms in dictionaries and thesauri but actions are far more complex. Describing an action you’ve never seen described before can be really hard. And like with everything else, it doesn’t hurt to have a few examples before trying. Some really great writers, I find, are ones who not only have a compelling story, but who know how to briefly describe shrugging without once using the word “shrug”.

And while you’re reading, observe people. Remember that your actions aren’t the only actions that exist. Some people facepalm, others run their fingers through their hair. I can’t stress enough how much watching real-life characters can help you develop the ones in your book.

But before this turns into an article about the finer points of stalking, let me impart to you this last bit of personal, opinionated, and always biased advice:

Don’t overdo it. There are only so many times you can get away with “The corners of his lips curved upwards into a crescent” before the reader starts shouting at you to “Just say he smiled!”

Different and innovative is awesome. Sometimes, though, simple packs as much of a punch.


Biljana Likic is an aspiring author, currently revising her first novel, TIME IS A FUNNY THING. She’s going into her second year of university, where she can’t wait till she’s out so she’ll finally have all the time in the world to write. You can visit her blog and follow her on Twitter.


31 Responses to “Don’t shrug this off.”

  1. kate May 24, 2011 at 2:18 AM #

    oh, so true. i’m also convinced that in order to think well, one must read. when i’m reading a lot, not only is my writing and command of language more precise, but my thoughts and non-creative-writing-ish pursuits are also more nuanced.

    • Biljana May 24, 2011 at 7:10 PM #

      I totally agree with that; I find myself finding things cooler because of how my mind is able to describe them.

  2. Susan May 24, 2011 at 2:21 AM #

    Great post!! I am sooooooooo the same. My first drafts (um, and let’s be honest, my later drafts too) are riddled with those bland actions.

    I try to come up with new ones, and I actually have an action tag “thesaurus” that I’ve been building for a few years now. Anytime I think/read/see a good action, I add it to the specific emotion it expresses. Of course, I’ve MADE this darn thing and constantly update it, but I never seem to really USE it. ::sigh::

    I’m glad you wrote about this because when I was just starting to write, I didn’t even know I was doing anything wrong!!

    • Biljana May 24, 2011 at 7:11 PM #

      That is enviably smart lol. I had a similar thought a while ago, but I was ultimately too lazy to follow up on it :P.

  3. Sarah May 24, 2011 at 2:35 AM #

    Hahaha, I love this post!

    By the way, if you alternate between “she looked at him sidelong” and “she looked at him askance”, you can use it twice as much, I find 😉

    Good advice, thanks!

    • Biljana May 24, 2011 at 7:12 PM #

      Hahaha thanks, I’ll keep that in mind!

  4. Amber May 24, 2011 at 7:23 AM #

    I love this post! Sometimes when I’m reading there will be a really cool action and I jot it down so I can remember it. I notice a lot of my characters either smirk, narrow their eyes, or shrug their shoulders.

    • Biljana May 24, 2011 at 7:12 PM #

      My characters do that SO much. I want them to read like badasses but really they just read like they have ticks lol.

  5. savannahjfoley May 24, 2011 at 8:40 AM #

    Gee Billy, how about you write characters that aren’t such greedy grabbers? 😉

    I totally have this same problem if I don’t read. I was reading a book last night, and it was a paranormal adventure about a demon-fighter, and even that book had descriptions for the sky that were completely lovely and unique. And it made me realize that I wasn’t being as creative in my descriptions as I could have been.

    • Biljana May 24, 2011 at 7:15 PM #

      Yeah there are times when I look at what I write and wish it was prettier :P. It’s been a while since I felt like a description I wrote was perfect for what it was, you know? Hopefully though that’s just because of how many times I’ve been rereading the MS!

  6. Maya May 24, 2011 at 9:29 AM #

    I know exactly what you mean. It’s hard to balance writing and reading so both skills are up to par. I sure haven’t figured it out. Great post! 🙂

    • Biljana May 24, 2011 at 7:16 PM #

      Neither have I! I’m hoping it comes with practice :).

  7. M. Howalt May 24, 2011 at 10:56 AM #

    M. Howalt nodded in agreement. “This was a really good post with some good points. Don’t you all agree?”
    The imaginary audience (enlisted to prove a point) nodded.
    “Alright,” M. Howalt said with a nod. “If I say that I am never guilty of having my characters repeat the same gestures, would you say that I am right or … nod?”
    Ahem. Great post! I do know the feeling (you can gprobably guess which word I overuse), and I also think that reading helps. 🙂

    • Biljana May 24, 2011 at 7:19 PM #

      Try “inclined his head”. I think once I was so desperate that I wrote “brought his chin to his chest” and it sounded like a stretching exercise. After some hearty laughter at my expense, I deleted it quickly the next day when I found it again.

      • M. Howalt May 25, 2011 at 4:13 AM #

        Oh yes, head inclining is a classic around here too. Your last option made me laugh too. 🙂

  8. Heather May 24, 2011 at 12:36 PM #

    All my characters are constantly nodding, blinking, frowning and smirking. Before I learnt that “said” was a perfectly adequate dialogue tag, they used to remark, announce, declare and exclaim a lot too. Glad to know I’m not alone 😛

    • Biljana May 24, 2011 at 7:23 PM #

      UGH frowning is another one that my MCs do a lot. And same here! Sometimes I’ll still find stray tags like inquire and question.

      Do you remember sniffed? Like “Do what you will,” he sniffed. I remembered that one recently and felt very proud of myself.

  9. Kathryn Craft May 24, 2011 at 1:09 PM #

    Congrats! As an independent editor, I can tell from your list that you are one of the few who must not overuse the word “glanced”!

    • Biljana May 24, 2011 at 7:24 PM #

      Oh god!! These comments are just reminding me of all the repeated words I’ve missed! 😉

  10. Vanessa Di Gregorio May 24, 2011 at 8:04 PM #

    I am SOOOOO guilty of having my characters SMIRK! (it’s such a goddamn awesome look though, you know? Gah, I need to find them some more facial expressions!)

    • Biljana May 25, 2011 at 3:34 PM #

      The problem is that no other facial expression is quite as smug as smirking.

  11. Madeleine May 24, 2011 at 9:29 PM #

    I love this post!

    I have similar problems, but I think my issues are founded on the fact that I haven’t read enough. At 15, I’ve only been reading for about 8 years, and there’s only so much a person can get through in that time! I have noticed that whenever I’ve finished a classic, my prose is more poetic and visual. Similarly, I write differently when I’ve just finished a book by John Green. My reading hugely affects how I write!

    • Biljana May 25, 2011 at 3:36 PM #

      Yeah, sometimes I find that I have to take a writing break after reading a particularly good book or else I’ll start copying the writing style. I write first person past and after reading the first Hunger Games book it took me SO LONG to shake off first person present.

  12. Debbie May 26, 2011 at 2:48 AM #

    This was really useful – I don’t think I really noticed how much my characters shrugged and smirked before. I’ll have to have words with them.

    Great point about reading to help your own vocabulary as well. I think it’s important to read while you write, even if sometimes you do find yourself copying the writer’s style (which I’m relieved to see isn’t just me!) I also find it really helpful for the way the structure and develop the story as well, and how they lead you through it by the nose sometimes.

    • Biljana May 31, 2011 at 3:46 PM #

      Tres vrais about structure. Reading doesn’t only help you with vocab; it helps you with the different ways a story can be formed.

  13. Sophia Richardson May 27, 2011 at 8:46 AM #

    Super helpful post. I know I have a problem (current WIP is so full of smiles and laughs and gazes) so I’m starting an action tags thesaurus. Woo. Thanks, Biljana!
    – Sophia.

    • Biljana May 31, 2011 at 3:48 PM #

      Lol I wish mine was full of laughs and smiles and gazes, maybe it wouldn’t sound so emo with it’s moody glares and frowns :P. Good luck with the action tags!

  14. Angela Ackerman May 27, 2011 at 9:48 AM #

    Great post! I am a shrugger and a head shaker. Always I need to go through my MS and weed these out. It’s good though to understand our crutch actions so we can eradicate and really think up something new (yet recognizable!) as an expressive.

    Have a great weekend!

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

    • Biljana May 31, 2011 at 3:49 PM #

      Glad you liked the post! I must admit I check out your Emotion Thesaurus from time to time for ideas :).

  15. Trish Loye Elliott May 27, 2011 at 2:39 PM #

    Great post! My characters raise their eyebrows so often they’re in danger of being mistaken for Spock. My crit group now giggles if they see it anywhere in my writing. You are so right though. Life’s been busy and I’ve let my reading slip. My vocab also sucks. Thanks for this. I needed it.

    • Biljana May 31, 2011 at 3:50 PM #

      LOL thanks for that wonderful imagery that I will now never be able to get out of my head….Spock…lol…

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