Breaking bad habits… Miami style.

Every writer has habits. Bits of dialog reappear again and again, character motions or gestures which we don’t remember pop up and up and up. Just this morning I wrote about a character accidentally hurting himself with a hammer, realizing as the words left my pen that I have had at least three other characters hurt themselves with hammers in exactly the same way. (In case you are wondering, yes, I was chased by a group of hammers as a child, and it left deep, emotional wounds). These gestures, dialog snippets, themes, character types are not bad in and of themselves. What can be bad is what they become through overuse. They can be crutches that we use to get us from A to B in a story, a sentence, a longer work or larger collection, without putting in more effort.
I’m sure you have a favorite author who has habits you’ve noticed. Someone who has a good number of books, and some of their best are from the middle of their publishing career. Their early works are a little immature, but show promise. Their middle works are astounding. And then, the later works… well, they sort of follow familiar patterns. Characters seem very similar to characters from other books, bits of dialog have a familiar echo, plot elements and perhaps plot structures seem to be lifted from the earlier novels (or stories). The author has, in a sense, gotten a little too comfortable and isn’t catching (or doesn’t care to catch) their own habits before they become a self-mockery (think of Lucille Ball at the end of her career, hair still red–redder than red, in fact–when the schtick had gotten sticky).
In your own work it’s harder to see. You probably stick with similar settings or themes from book to book. I do. There’s nothing wrong with that, and reusing plots is unavoidable at a certain level as there are only so many out there. What is avoidable are the ticks, gestures, ways of framing a reaction or action that make the reader say “There they go again.” I had to make my character put down the hammer without getting hurt. In fact, for a change he used the hammer in the appropriate way and didn’t get hurt at all. I’m fighting the urge to make him almost hurt himself. Take a look at a current work in progress. How often do you have a character “raise his eyebrows in surprise”, “cross her arms”, “stare into space”, etc. etc…
By way of example, I will point you to this video, a compilation of repeated quirks and deliveries that starts off in melodrama and heads downhill fast. Here is a TV show where the push for originality has been pushed off the cliff.
Here is a collection of bad habits (writers habits, actors habits, directors habits…):

2 thoughts on “Breaking bad habits… Miami style.

  1. I had to stop watching that video. It was getting painful.
    During my first draft, my characters do a lot of eyebrow raising. By the time I change all of them in revisions, I want to hit myself with a hammer.

  2. Personal cliches, in effect.
    Noticible to fans and collectors of a particular writer’s work – but not to new readers – so it’s more a hindsight objection.

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