One of the problems I see most while editing and had to overcome when improving my own use of the writing craft, is crutch words.
Filler, fluff, crutch words–they all clutter up our writing and muffle the message we’re trying to send. Crutch words are those words that we rely on when we’re not quite sure what to say. When describing body language, this often includes smiling, laughing, winking, breathing, sighing, nodding, frowning, gazing, standing, thinking, walking, shrugging, crying, etc. They’re all things we likely do multiple time every day, so it’s reasonable to think our characters are doing these things, right?
Well, that’s also where the problem starts. Every verb in your story should help convey imagery of what’s happening in a way that’s meaningful to the reader. Maybe you smile several times through a conversation, but if you’re telling the reader several times over a passage that the character smiled, what are you trying to convey? If there’s one particular time where that smile is vitally important to the story, it shows a progression with the character or the plot, but because your characters are smiling during every part of the conversation, that one special moment is dulled. Your reader is now glossing over that reaction because it’s happened several times over the course of the book and it’s no longer meaningful.
What can you do?
Dig deeper! Look beyond these common signs of body language and find other ways to show your reader how your character is feeling and reacting to the situation. If you’re writing in that character’s view point, utilize internal sensations and mental responses. Imagine the scenario in your head and catalog the character’s other physical signals. If a character is smiling because they’re happy, what other physical signs might they be giving others? Clasping their hands over their chest? An animated, lively tone to their voice? If they’re moving, maybe there’s a bounce to step, and they’re freely swinging their arms, or if they’re standing, they may bounce on their toes. How does their overall demeanor change with their mood?
If you engage the senses to explore the little details that bring emotions to life, not only will you be able to effectively vary your character’s reactions to events and conversations, you can create a more nuanced image for the reader to engage with in their imaginations.
To strengthen your writing, be mindful of the verbs and elements of body language you’re using. If you’re going for high-output writing days, you don’t have to spell out every emotion in the first draft, but it’s important to go back and search for overused words when you have time to elaborate and fully explore the depth of your character’s reactions.
You can use the search and replace function in Word to highlight frequently used words or phrases to address in rewrites. You can start with the words mentioned above and create your own lists for words or phrases you use repeatedly.
If you’re having trouble visualizing the other physical or emotional reactions of your characters, I highly recommend checking out The Emotion Thesaurus.