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Posting on a question about word frequency data, I read an excellent answer from @DPT about avoiding words that become so frequent, they're problematic. In a snippet of that answer, they wrote:

But, you end up with bobbing heads, smiling at each other, and it's neither realistic nor enjoyable to read about for very long.

It got me wondering whether my characters are head-bobbing, smiling marionettes. So, I analysed my own 106,000 word novel for the frequency of nods and smiles. I have 62 smiles and 28 nods.

  1. Does that number make you think, 'Whoa there! Too many, man!'?

  2. And how do you avoid it?

Because, I try to keep my writing plain and realistic. I don't want to start thesaurusing smile and substituting it for, 'She grinned.' 'He beamed.' 'She smirked.' And the same with nod. Because, when you change the word, you do slightly alter the meaning. A smirk isn't the same a smile.

Also, in real life, when someone says something agreeable, we smile and nod. That's what people do. We don't bow our heads or bob them, we just nod in acknowledgement.

And, if I substitute nods for dialogue, it rubs me, just slightly, in the wrong direction. Just as an example, take this scene I'm writing now. A friend meets my MC's husband for the first time. He's very charming towards her and he's a good looking guy. So, she says, 'He's a bit of alright.'

Having my MC say, 'Yes, he is.' or 'I know.' or 'Isn't he!' feels all wrong. Firstly, if someone said that to me about my husband, I'd just smile and nod. And secondly, my MC is p****d off with her husband right now. So, she just smiles and nods to be agreeable.

This is just an example, but attempts to make the point that changing the words or substituting dialogue, often doesn't work.

So, how do y'all handle your marionettes?

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    At 400 words per page, that 106,000 word novel is 265 pages. You've got a little under four and a half pages between each smile, and about one nod every ten pages. That doesn't sound to me like a major overuse of either. – a CVn Feb 22 '18 at 18:24
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    An added difficulty to figuring this out comes from your own familiarity with your story. The first time I read Sanderson's The Way of Kings, I never noticed all the "blinks". The second time through, they drove me a little crazy. I don't think you should plan for a reader's second read-through, but now that you're looking for it, it throws off your perception. – SethWhite Feb 22 '18 at 23:20
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    @SethWhite Thanks, now I'm going to notice all the blinks the next time I read it. – JAB Feb 22 '18 at 23:21
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    All I can think of is the amount of Sniffing and Braid Tugging that goes on in WoT. 62 smiles and 28 nods is fine. – Thomo Feb 23 '18 at 3:10
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    @F1Krazy Yes! I read your post with interest. That comment about not writing a novel like it's a movie in your head, really concerned me. I've never heard that before, and I definitely do it, too. I wonder if I'm perhaps better suited to screenwriting!? I guess I'll find out when my agents try to sell it in March. I thought that Amadeus's comment about trying to "watch this scene in your head without the speech." to add "bodily movements, thoughts, perception problems (glare, lights, hearing), distractions" was a good tip. – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Feb 23 '18 at 14:58
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This depends on your characters and story

If you have a happy fairy-tale story for young adults having a lot of smiling characters may be exactly what you want - a mostly happy world.

If, on the other hand, you are writing a gritty thriller where the main goal is to show the psychological trauma of police officers dealing with the most gruesome parts of human nature you definitely don't want someone smiling every other page.

Furthermore you might have a character who always smiles as a character trait. Maybe it's the nice guy who always helps out. Or the nice guy who is always smiling and turning into a horrible monster with a smile that shows way too many, way too sharp teeth. A smile that causes fear in everyone who sees it - for they know that it will be the last thing they will ever face in this world.

Going only by word count is basically always a bad idea. There are too many factors to consider with this. Of course it can give you an idea of what to look at - you know what you are writing and what your characters are doing right now. But we don't know what characters and what story you are writing. And how far they are in their story. Maybe you are writing a really long book of a couple thousand pages in the end and this is merely the starting point where the world is still okay and happy and bright - the time before chaos turns everything upside down and nobody would ever smile again, for the smile of a person will cause horrible abominations to arise from the depths of the abyss with their only intention being to wipe the smile off of your characters face.

They are making their victims listen to their eldritch speeches of how what they are doing is the best for everyone. Forcing them to nod - or be tortured. Though every nod and every half-smile will bring them closer to their untimely demise.

For they sinned. Smiling is only for the powerful. To smile is to show power. And power belongs to those who are from the other side.

Words can have vastly different meaning depending on their context and just because you have a smile every five pages doesn't mean that your characters are all happy. For you are the only one who can say whether it was a warm smile of gratitude or a dangerous smile of a wicked witch.

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    Secespitus, thanks! You've got me thinking! It's domestic noir. So, it's a thriller where everything looks sunny on the top of this marriage, but there's a dark undercurrent beneath. You've made me worry less because I do want that surface to appear like a mostly happy world. Thx! – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Feb 22 '18 at 19:25
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    Let your people smile and bob. At some point someone else can say; "for goodness sake stop grinning and say something!" – RedSonja Feb 23 '18 at 9:42
  • Red has it. Sometimes, just report their speech (or “inner monologue”) without commenting on the body language (if it's a grumpy response, we'll imagine the furrowing of the eyebrows, the stiffening and pressing together of the lips, the clenching of the fists and whitening of the knuckles, the slight awkwardness of the stiff movement away from the scene ... you don't always have to write them. – Will Crawford Feb 23 '18 at 13:39
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I'm a little wary of purely data-driven writing changes. Without reading your book, I can't say if 62 smiles is 3 smiles too many or 5 smiles too few. But in terms of a warning sign of possible deeper issues, the question I would ask is whether your characters are too agreeable.

Although having someone smile and nod when someone else hits on their husband might be realistic, we generally want characters in fiction to be more active and demonstrative than those in real life. In this situation, even if she doesn't take the (more entertaining, but probably overdramatic) route of causing a scene, I'd at least expect a grimace, or a "forced" smile, or her hand to tighten momentarily on her purse.

It's okay for her to fool the people at the party, but if she's really not OK with this --and why would she be? --then I feel we the audience should know that. Even if being passive and overly agreeable is a key part of her character, we should get at least a hint of the effort it takes. Ishiguro's Remains of the Day is basically an entire novel about someone whose job description includes smiling and nodding, and what it costs him inside.

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    Thx Chris. The point about purely data-driven changes, and wanting characters to be more demonstrative in fiction is really valid. Just for info, it's not a hit on her husband. It's something two girlfriends might say to each other as a compliment about landing a good 'un. I could say that to a girlfriend without it being taken that way (with the right tone). Maybe that doesn't translate across the water? Something I'll take note of and maybe reword. And yes, my MC is a little too agreeable, but there's a damn good reason for that which transpires later. Thanks for the tips! – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Feb 22 '18 at 19:43
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    @GGx I wouldn't worry too much about me misreading the scene, I'm sure it's perfectly clear in context. The advice still stands however. – Chris Sunami Feb 22 '18 at 20:01
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    Whether or not this answer satisfies the OP, I can tell you that, years from now, I will still remember this statement: "we generally want characters in fiction to be more active and demonstrative than those in real life." #TIL – Tom Feb 24 '18 at 20:47
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I had a similar concern once when, having happened upon this image, I thought to check how often characters sighed in one of my manuscripts. It happened about 1.5 times per chapter, which I felt was excessive. My trick to fixing this was simple: visualise the scene as if it were part of TV show, imagine what the actors would be doing to bring the scene alive, and describe that instead of the sighing. This may sound like it just replaces one repeated thing with another, but it didn't because I realised every sigh meant something different. So does every nod, and every smile. In fact, the real reason to replace these repetitive descriptions isn't that it reduces repetition; it's that it shows the various things people think across the story much more insightfully.

  • I'll try that, thanks. I watch a LOT of TV, so shouldn't be too difficult! – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Feb 23 '18 at 4:51
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    "Nothing happened" - Howls of laughter. – Todd Wilcox Feb 23 '18 at 20:34
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(FTR, 21 nods, 53 smiles, 95K. We're pretty close.)

I had a beta read on a few chapters and they said the word usage itself was fine. You may be fine.


A few ideas.

  1. Some nods can be qualified. A half nod, a tilted head considering then nodding. (see the quoted text at the bottom.) I have one character 'tip her head up as if to say 'I told you.' '

But some of my nods really were just action tags for dialog. Those are the problems. They've been deleted or changed. (To that point, they crept in through a variety of efforts to correct other issues, like playing with dialog tags!)

You might be able (if you want) to change your 'example nod' to a low chuckle. Or a knowing chuckle.

"He's a bit of alright, isn't he?"

She chuckled softly in response.

Here's another possibility:

"He's a bit of alright, isn't he?"

Her eyes lingered on him as he walked away. She smiled, and she nodded.

(see what I did there? :-) He's definitely a bit of alright.)

  1. It's got to be balance, right? Too many furrowed brows can be balanced out by changing a few of them to frowns or creased eyes.

  2. I like this reddit thread about the topic. Check that out. Perhaps as part of the process, find a simple action that each character has (like a tic, I guess?) and play with limiting the action to that character. That way, the nods do double duty, if they are limited to certain characters.

Here's a gem (edited) from the reddit thread:

If you pick up one of your favorite authors and start reading with a mind to this you are going to notice that every single time the book turns its eye to a character the descriptions used reinforce deep traits.

No character will ever nod.. They will tilt their head down in a half nod, jaw set. They will glance around as though trying to find an answer in the air around them, then look at your eyes and quickly give a shallow nod of acceptance, or whatever. But what you, and I, were doing was poor characterization - probably.


(And there's the actual answer, the actual heavy lifting, of going deeper, finding something more evocative about the scene, the interaction, and giving that specific instead of a smile or a nod.)

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    DPT It makes me feel better that our stats are similar! I found your answer on frequency really interesting. And I see what you did! The addition of other action, when you really do just want a smile and nod, does make it that little bit more interesting. Food for thought! Thx! Much appreciated. – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Feb 22 '18 at 19:20
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    Just for fun: I was honoured when asked if I'd edit my university's creative writing lecturer's third novel. This woman is fabulous and a great editor. Yet, she didn't even notice that her characters leaned against everything! About seventy leans in as many thousand words. Now, I didn't even notice! But another reader did. It irritated the hell out of her. So, I guess that's another point: we all do it without realising, and what annoys one reader won't necessarily annoy another. Best to err on the side of caution though, eh! – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Feb 22 '18 at 19:43
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Last year I read a novel where someone furrowed their brow about once every two pages. Not just someone, but everyone. All the characters did this. It drove me crazy.

Sure, brow furrowing is a common thing to do when you're puzzled, but I think distinct characters are more interesting. If one furrows their brows a lot, perhaps the others (at least some of the others) should express this mental state differently--a head tilt, an exclamation of disbelief. And there's no sense of degree. A furrowed brow should express more confusion and surprise than a "huh?" and perhaps less than a gaping jaw.

What worries me about smiles and nods, in particular, is that those are indications of agreement, which is the opposite of drama. Drama is conflict. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was to make your characters argue. Sure, your main character has a certain mindset that suits the story you've envisioned. But you can surround them with foils that have a different point of view and thus react differently.

As Secespitus wrote, context matters. If the main character is smiling and nodding to mask their true feelings, then make sure the reader knows that right there at that moment. The conflict between the feelings and the action is a tiny bit of drama. No thesaurus needed there. If I had too many smiles and nods in the story, I wouldn't worry about that one. I'd go worry about the dull ones that might not even be worth a mention. If smiling and nodding is the utterly typical and expected reaction, then maybe it's best to just let the reader assume it.

One last bit: Gestures might be culture specific (or a result of the way a particular character was trained to respond to certain situations). Even something that might seem as natural and obvious as smiling and nodding can actually be an unconscious assumption. Not everyone actually does it in the same way or in the same types of situations. Make your individuals individual, and you'll eliminate a lot of unintended redundancy. Where an average westerner might nod, some folks from Asia might bob their head side-to-side, and a certain physics professor I once knew would vibrate with nervous energy while avoiding eye contact. You probably don't want to a gesture that's so extremely outside the norm that it distracts from the moment, but having people respond in slightly different ways can make them more interesting, especially if those differences can somehow revealing a bit of who they are.

  • Love this. +1 for many reasons. – DPT Feb 22 '18 at 22:25
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    Adrian, this is great! Super helpful. There is a lot of tension in this scene, a strong undercurrent beneath both relationships, with the friend and the husband. So, I won't worry about that one. But I will look at other instances and implement your advice. Thanks! – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Feb 23 '18 at 4:56
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Use the words you need to use to convey meaning to the reader. At the same time, don't repeat yourself. If a character says something, and it's clear they are in agreement, is there really a need to also say they nodded?

You may think that repetitive use of words is bad, but what's just as bad is the obvious attempt by an author to spoon feed everything to the reader. Characters becoming nodding and smiling marionettes because they are simple shortcuts to spelling things out. It's much easier to convey meaning with these words than figuring out good dialogue or other conflict that conveys it.

I'd suggest don't make things so obvious. Unpack these words, and think of other ways to demonstrate it. Let the characters make judgments as to whether someone is in agreement or if they're smirking. For example, a character should only be said to smirk if it's important to show they are being smug or conceited. If what they said doesn't portray this, or how someone reacts doesn't portray it, then by all means, let them smirk, but you can portray it in more powerful ways. For example, someone retorting with, "You smug bastard, wipe that smirk of your face" says everything you really need, plus it's a judgment made by one of your characters. Maybe they're not smirking, but are interpreted as such.

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    +1 also, for using the surrounding characters for 'showing' in a scene. Although not directly an answer to the OP, I believe this can work wonders in so many scenes compared to having a narrator 'tell' everything. It shows relationships, perceptions, experience. – storbror Feb 25 '18 at 11:48
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    This is great advice, Craig. I think spoon-feeding the reader every detail is an easy habit to slip into for a novice writer. I know it's something I'm guilty of sometimes. I think, also, that writing a novel, redrafting, redrafting, redrafting is such a long and tiring process that it's inevitable you'll have moments of laziness where you don't properly unpack a scene. Determined to weed out those moment in this edit!! Thx!! – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Feb 26 '18 at 5:58

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