I’m at that point with my manuscript: banging my head against the wall as I flag and purge repetitive words and replace all those well-worn expressions: he smiles, she grins, he laughs, they frown, she shrugs, he furrows his brow, she crinkles his forehead – wait, that’s not what I mean.
I do a search for every possible rendition of the word smile, highlighting each one in yellow. “He smiles.” “They are smiling.” “She said, smiling.” Then I count them. There are 123 cases of the verb “to smile” in 296 pages of my manuscript. That’s one smile every 2.4 pages. I found four on a single page. What is everyone smiling about? The story takes place during a violent military coup in a Central American country. People are scared. My teen protagonist is on her own trying to find her missing grandmother. She should be quaking in her boots! Okay, she has met a cute Honduran guy with a nice smile. But there are so many smiles the word starts to lose its meaning. I start to see it in different anagram forms: miles. simle. limes. 8mile. When I do this next pass I swear I’m going get it down to no more than 87.
When I was a kid, every time I asked my mother what a word meant, she’d scream, “Look it up!” She’s a Ph.D. in English Literature and clearly had an agenda she didn’t even try to hide. Swearing at her under my breath, I’d stumble into the living room to the 50-pound dictionary sitting open on the bottom shelf of a bookcase and look up the word. To prepare for the SATs, I memorized a lot of new words, several of which, I was shocked to discover, actually appeared on the test. In college as a Semiotics major I learned some really BIG words, like synecdoche and metonym. Even though I can’t remember what they mean, I try to slip them into cocktail party conversations every chance I get. So you’d think with my impressive vocabulary that I’d know a few synonyms for “smile.” But besides “grin,” how do you get across that universal expression a character has when she is happily talking to someone or shyly flirting or genuinely proud?
I find another overused word: “shrug.” In real life people shrug a lot, so it makes sense that they’re shrugging all the time in my book. It’s strange how many shrugs are close to smiles, sometimes appearing like a duet within a few lines. Why? Does her smiling make him want to shrug? Does he shrug because he wishes he were smiling like her?
Next, I turn to “turn.” I find three within five lines: “He turned on the radio,” “I turn the AC vent away from me,” “His knuckles turn pale.” Problem is, you can turn something on, turn direction or turn a corner, turn something into something else, turn someone in, turn your attention to something, turn against someone, or turn to face someone. There are just too many turns to keep track of.
I decide to turn it into a drinking game. For every page that contains two of the following: smile, shrug, and turn, I take a chug of beer. If any one of these appears twice on a page, it’s an extra chug. Soon the words are swimming on the pages and I’m struck with a stab of panic: I forgot all about the sighs, nods, and frowns!
I know. I’ll go to the Internet. Just like that 50-pound dictionary of my youth, it has the answer to everything.
There’s hope out there in the ether. I find a wealth of resources for describing facial expressions and emotions.
WikiHow has the useful, How to Describe Emotions, complete with lots of concrete examples.
For a list of descriptive terms, try 100 words for facial expressions from DailyWritingTips.
Michael Bradley discovered an amazing graphic of every conceivable facial expression and emotion.
I hope these websites pull up the edges of your mouth into a wide U, like they did for me. As for replacing words like “turn” and “shrug,” I sigh and continue the search.