Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Don't Let Your Characters “Nod” Off

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Over the last few months, I’ve been focusing on individual words and phrases that can hurt otherwise good writing. Today, I’d like to call “nod” into the spotlight.

Characters nod a lot in novels. Often, it’s right before they utter words that echo this agreement. For example, She nodded. “Exactly my thoughts as well.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a line like this, but it is a bit redundant, and the nodding doesn’t add anything to the scene. Sure, it reinforces what’s being said, and it gives the character an action, and might even help clarify who’s speaking in the scene, but if you cut it, nothing changes.

Yet we still use it all the time. How often? I took a peek at a few of my own works in progress.

Number of “nods” used in early drafts: 89, 112, 105

Number of “nods” used in final drafts: 69, 91, 71

It might not seem like a lot when you consider we’re talking about 60,000 to 90,000-word novels, but those numbers are 100 missed opportunities to make the writing stronger. I’d bet at least half of them could have been more interesting gestures or stage directions. Any dozen of them could have been funny quips or poignant lines of internalization. Some of them could even have been brilliant dialogue.

Let’s look at a few and see if they’re serving the story:
  • He nods. “Right. They sent for my uncle. We were what? Ten? We should have gotten away with it.”
  • I nod, my heart slowing. I’m safe. Everything’s fine.
  • She nods. We keep moving, past row after row of barracks, all the way to the rear of the compound where it faces the palace grounds.
  • My breath and feet freeze, but my mind screams move. I nod a polite greeting and keep walking.
  • She nods and thunks into the chair across from me. "You were angry?"

Not helping a lot, are they? They’re so bland they practically disappear into the text. Let’s look at what happens when we cut out all the nods:
  • “Right. They sent for my uncle. We were what? Ten? We should have gotten away with it.”
  • My heart slows. I’m safe. Everything’s fine.
  • We keep moving, past row after row of barracks, all the way to the rear of the compound where it faces the palace grounds.
  • My breath and feet freeze, but my mind screams move. I greet her politely and keep walking.
  • She thunks into the chair across from me. "You were angry?"

Lose the nods and nothing changes in most of these lines. The only line where nod is pulling its weight is:
My breath and feet freeze, but my mind screams move. I nod a polite greeting and keep walking.
Here, the nod means more than simple agreement, it’s part of the greeting. It also shows that the character’s external actions don’t match her internal feelings. She’s scared, but she’s being polite.

Why We Use the Word Nod

Nod is a wonderful placeholder word. Our instincts know we have to pause and let the character physically act, so out it comes. It’s small, invisible to readers, and helps avoid heads talking in blank rooms. “Look,” we say, “The character is nodding. Action!” But as the examples show, all those nods rarely add value to our scenes.

(Here’s more on the freedom of placeholder words)

Make Nod Work for You

Sit down with your latest WIP and search for nod. In each instance, consider what it’s doing for you. If you can cut it and lose nothing, try replacing it with something that adds value to the scene. Perhaps:
  • A physical action that also hints at who the character is
  • A line of internalization that shows the character’s true feelings
  • A descriptive detail characters in the scene might remark upon
  • A bit of world building that creates tension or mystery
  • A hint at the character’s past or true motives
  • A subtle clue that will become critical later
  • A touch of theme
  • A suggestion of danger
  • A good laugh

Brainstorm the possibilities for each instance of nod and take advantage of any opportunities you find. Getting rid of this one tiny word might be exactly what your scene needs to go from good to great.

How often do you use nod? 

Looking for tips on writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel, and the just-released companion guide, the Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011).

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, and the upcoming Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. I keep an eye out for nods, head shakes, and shrugs, as I tend to overuse them. I am trying to eliminate them from my first draft by putting a bit more thought into it, but I find a lot of them when I am reworking older writings.

    I am working through one right now that involves interviews of a mute subject. Really working on the body language and not falling back on simple nods and headshakes for every question...

    1. That would be a challenge, but probably a fun one. There are a lot of good books on body language and micro expressions you could try if you haven't already.

  2. This is one of my pet peeves, but I never thought to count the instances in my own work. So, I just counted the nods in my last 30,000-word dark fantasy episode and found only five, most of which were working for me. So, yay me, and fix two of the five. I notice when I edit others' work, however, that the narratives are riddled with nods. Great article.

    1. Nice, not bad at all. Sometimes I like to count the words just to get a more realistic feel of what I'm using. It might seem like a lot, but when I check, it isn't (or it is). It also helps find when I have a lot grouped together.

  3. I think mine is smile. My characters always smile, a lot. Probably because I both love to smile and find smiling attractive/inviting when others do it... But now I'm thinking maybe people will just imagine hordes of vapid smiling Stepford people populating my WIP..... Adding to my list for edits!

    1. I use that one a lot as well. It's fine for a first draft, but yep, one I also search for and edit on draft two. I also use a lot of frowns.

  4. Great! She nods in agreement. Oops no nodding needed!