In my high school drama class, the teacher used to watch our scenes and monologues and comment on what she called our “-isms,” those subconscious behaviors we were completely unaware of enacting while on stage. Doug frequently rolled his eyes, so our teacher called that his “Doug-ism.” Patrick always laughed a little too loudly on stage, his Patrick-ism. Crystal always put her hands on her hips, her Crystal-ism. My subconscious behaviors, according to Mrs. Myers, were referred to as my “Danny-isms.” These actions, tics, quirks, and nervous behaviors identified us as individuals and interfered with our total transformation into the character we were supposed to be. During these little moments our own, very distinctive personalities would seep through the cracks of our character and announce loudly and clearly, “Hey, this isn’t real. I’m just acting here.” In short, it ruined the illusion.
In writing, we also have our “-isms” that can ruin the illusion. These would be expressions, themes, patterns, fall back beats and character actions that not only identify our style, but call us out as not writing seamlessly. Recently, I marked up a manuscript for a writer friend of mine and noted how often her characters swallowed. During scenes of dialogue, the characters were always swallowing in the quote attributions. In that novel, that was her “-ism.” I’m not picking on that writer; we all have our “-isms” and we do not realize we are doing them. In a 200-plus page manuscript, it’s hard to keep track of every last little action we give our characters, especially in the heat of composition. That’s what Beta readers are for.
In reading the rough draft of my last young adult novel, I noticed many Danny-isms. Namely, that people were always “exhaling.” “He looked at her and exhaled.” “I exhaled to release my tension.” “She exhaled in relief.” People were also always having “lights go on” when they realized something. “A light went on in his head.” “The light went on in her head and then he realized what happened.” And a variation: “A light came up in her eyes and then she knew.” Or the like. It’s okay to put these in a rough draft to keep the story moving. But eventually, we must go back and fix them. Part of my work on the second draft of my novel, therefore, was to locate and surgically alter most or all of my “Danny-isms.”
During at least one draft, it’s important that we search for our “-isms,” and kill them. Well, not all of them. There’s nothing inherently wrong with swallowing, exhaling, or having lights go on. We don’t need to kill them all. But if they appear as a noticeable pattern in an entire manuscript, we must hope that some compassionate early reader will point them out (with an eye to helping us improve) and we must have the courage to make a pass through the book and exchange some of them with new, fresher, and more original actions and behaviors for our characters.
Question: Have you noticed any -isms in your favorite writers? Any Stephen King-isms or Nora Brown-isms, for example?