Playing the organ

Revealing emotion means more than “playing the organ”

If you’re like many writers, your monitor is a veritable porcupine of sticky notes, many of them warning you away from the clichés your beta readers and editor have called you out on again and again:

Her heart pounded as his hand slid up the side of her neck.
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She was determined.
Her eyes twinkled at him over the top of her coffee cup.
His stomach roiled at the idea of facing him again.
A chill raced up his spine as he considered the alternatives.

Twinkle, twinkle, little eyeball

Many body-oriented clichés don’t describe anything that’s literally happening anyway. What is someone actually conveying if their eyes are “twinkling”? Are they teasing, happy, flirtatious, duplicitous, challenging? The fact is, readers don’t know for sure. They’re going to have to pick up on what’s happening from the other clues you’ve left—which leaves your twinkling eyes dangling uselessly.

And what do twinkling eyes look like, anyway? Can you look away from the monitor right now and make your eyes twinkle, independent of other facial gymnastics? How do your twinkling eyes look? I’m betting you look more than a little psychotic right now—probably not the effect you were going for.

The point is, twinkling eyes are shorthand for the underlying emotions you should be revealing through your characters’ thoughts and actions. There’s certainly no reason not to let the clichés fly as you pound out your first draft. (See what I did there?) Shorthand can be an effective writer’s tool in a first draft.

But once it’s time to tune that initial brain dump into something more precise, you’ll need to get rid of all the placeholding clichés—and finding them can be half the battle. We’re so used to our glares and deep sighs and pounding hearts that our eye skims right past them. (More proof of their lack of impact, right?)

Stop playing the organ

Instead of trying to keep track of every cliché your editor has ever flagged on your manuscripts, sweep an entire lot of them into the wastebin at once with this reminder: Quit playing the organ. In this case, the organs you’re trying not to play are those five hardworking body parts that authors turn to as matter of course to convey emotion.

  1. The heart
  2. The lungs
  3. The eyes
  4. The stomach
  5. The spine

How many times have you read about hearts that clench with terror, breath that catches in the throat, eyes that dance or glisten or (heaven forbid) twinkle, or stomachs that rumble with hunger? It’s not that these expressions don’t communicate emotion clearly; it’s that they’ve been overused to the point that almost any reference to these body parts is already part of an established cliché.

When you find yourself tempted to play the organ, turn back to playing your keyboard instead. Come up with a fresh way to convey the emotion you’re trying to show. Instead of telling readers what your character feels, how about showing what your character thinks or does next? It may take a few more words—you’re replacing emotional shorthand, after all—but I can guarantee your readers will appreciate the genuine emotion of fresh writing.

Lisa Poisso, Editor and Book Coach

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Image: Paleontour

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