We’ve all been there – when we’re running late or feeling lazy or trying to dash off an email during a stoplight – those moments when we’re grateful that our phones seem to anticipate what we want to say. “That sounds good.” “I’ll call you later.” The words pop up on the screen before I even think them. Predictability eases me down the well-worn path. See, it just happened again.
Good fiction writing requires us to resist the predictable, both the sort that everyone overuses – common cliques, trite metaphors, tired character tropes – and our own personal collection. All of us have favorite gestures, facial expressions, descriptions, and snatches of dialogue. In your first drafts, I wouldn’t worry about them. In mine, the characters start out shaking their heads like a contagious tic. But when you edit, make an effort to resist your own mental autosuggest. Here are a few good reasons why (besides not wanting to drive your readers nuts):
To keep readers from tuning out. No one feels a need to bother picturing people who are doing typical things. In a chapter of mine critiqued by the talented Rebecca Makkai, author of The Hundred-Year House and The Borrower, my characters were eating and sipping drinks at a Christmas party. She suggested that I give them more unusual food – for example, they could be cracking nuts with old nutcrackers – or unexpected small actions such as making a paper airplane out of an old takeout menu. The same goes for what they say and how they look. In other words, work to make your characters’ behavior different and interesting enough to catch and hold your readers’ attention.
To make everything count. Gestures, expressions and descriptions can all convey meaning. They can be an opportunity to add layers or increase the stakes. Readers notice when a gap opens up between what characters say and what they do. Everyone loves to watch for clues. Thinking of the extra messages that you’d like to send can help you to avoid the repetitive and potentially boring.
To convince yourself of the reality of the scene. Your first and most important reader is you. If you make your characters less predictable, then all of sudden you’ll find yourself needing to pay them more attention. Each time you add another distinctive action or expression to a character, she or he will become more singular and real. Characters will get more specific, gestures more laden, and descriptions more riveting. Your scenes as a whole will take on more texture and complication.
So when you’re ready to revise, try to push yourself past what’s easy and automatic. Try surprising yourself.