Tics and Tells to Show not Tell

A WaterlooTics and tells are a fun way for you to “show” how a character is feeling, or who they are, without having to “tell” the reader. Yes, the quotation marks were purposeful.  The concept we’re going to discuss today builds on the foundation of showing versus telling, which I’ve talked about before. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, I encourage you to click on the hyperlink. It includes some other great references for you to check out beyond the meager offering I wrote.

Tics and tells help you avoid poker-faced characters in your story. A poker-faced character would be a character who delivers dialogue, but reveals little in the way of body language. It’s also a means to help your characters not fall into the void of floating head syndrome.

Depending on whether you outline or not, the time to consider tics and tells will change. For outliners, you can include some of this info in your character sheets. For you “pantsers,” just see if anything happens organically and try to be consistent. Regardless, pantsers,  you might want to consider examining this aspect during your first revision/rewrite.

There are three things I like to think of when I shape this aspect of my characters: physical traits, items worn, and dialogue tics. This list is incomplete, for sure, but it’s a good jumping-off point.

Da_Vinci_Vitruve_Luc_Viatour.jpgWhen it comes to physical traits, I’m thinking beyond just the basic height, hair, skin, gender, and eye color.  The basics are a good place to start, but dig deeper.  Don’t just think of normal or beautiful traits, find the flaws too.

While this may seem unnecessary, this front-end work pays dividends down the road. A person with a giant Adams apple may swallow when nervous. It’ll look like a golf ball bobbing up and down in their throat. A person with narrow eyes may look like they have them closed when they are lying. The gap in someones two front teeth may be on display when they chew their lower lip while thinking.

This level of description saves you from having to pepper your dialogue attribution with adverbs to tell the reader information. If you build the blocks early, they will know the second eyes squint, nostrils flare, or foreheads wrinkle that [insert emotion] is being felt. The best part is it only requires a short sentence and you are moving from telling into showing territory.

broken glasses.jpgKnowing what your characters are wearing and have on their person is a useful tool. Understanding how they interact with these things is even better. It can also be of use when anchoring readers in your chapters. I’ve talked about anchoring before, but the concept is to reorient the reader in the beginning of a chapter.

If the chapter opens with a character cleaning his/her broken glasses with a torn and bloody shirt, you’ve opened the chapter with action, zoomed in on POV, and zapped the reader into who this chapter is coming from (unless all your characters are wearing broken glasses and ripped up shirts). If you’ve layered in the idea that this character cleans their glasses when they are nervous, you’ve stacked yet another layer of complexity.
Night_vision.jpgHere’s an example from my military days. Even from behind in the pitch black with night vision goggles on (which aren’t as whiz-bang as Hollywood would like you to think), I could tell who was with me on a mission by how they were acting. How are they holding their rifle? Are they constantly messing with their helmet straps? Are they constantly moving? Are they constantly leaning on something? These observations allowed me to take green and black humanoid blobs and know who they were.

We can apply this to our writing. Our characters wear clothes (hopefully), and they might have some external items with them too. Take a moment to consider how they interact with these items in different situations. Take the list of adverbs you might use (nervously, excitedly, boringly, furiously..and the list goes on) and write how they would manipulate their clothing or worn items in those situations. Again, now you can show instead of tell without bumping the word count up too much or bogging down attribution tags with adverbs.

Mannerisms tie into physical appearance and character possessions, but they can also be hidden within dialogue. Perhaps when a character is lying, they s-s-stutter, add many unnecessary and useless words to increase the length of what they are saying, or perhaps they become concise.  This can be a slippery slope (accents come to mind).  If it’s a fail, your alpha and beta readers will likely clue you in.

question-markThat’s it for today. What suggestions, additions, or ideas would you add to this list?  Do you use any of these concepts in your writing?  I’d love to talk about it and broaden my depth of knowledge.  Until we cross quills again, keep reading, keep writing, and as always—stay sharp!

Copyright Info (final)

16 responses

    • Thank you for reading and for the kind words. Characters, for me, are one of the hardest elements of story telling to pin down. Due to this, I spend a lot of time outside of the book trying to build tools to help.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Great post. Time to check what I’ve already got the characters up to, see what tics I’ve already got.
    With every post, there’s a little more work you give me. I’d complain, but I love the challenge and the feeling that my writing is getting better.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I know exactly how you feel. As I continue my self-study, write my own books, and read/edit others I constantly find areas in my own writing that is insufficient. The checklist I use to manage the madness continuously grows. But hey, if it gives the reader a better product and gets the story out there—I can’t complain about that. Good luck to both of us!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent advice on how to show what a character is thinking/feeling without spelling it out.

    I think this is especially helpful for me given the way I like to “cast” my characters. While I’m outlining, I think about which actor I’d like to see play each part. (In some crazy, ideal world within my head where said actors are magically at my command.) Usually actors I’m fairly familiar with, so that can give me a whole range of tics and gestures to start with.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really enjoy this technique because it is layered so easily. It increased the weight and value of simple mannerisms later in the book once the foundation is built.

      It’s also fun for the reader because it’s an inside tell. A joke they and the author share. A reward for their attention. Kind of like when a friend sits down to watch something you are overly familiar with and you can say, “You see that? When he/she does that it means this.” In this sense, I think modeling some of aspects from what you see on tv is a great place to build ideas.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Another insightful post, Corey! So true about what you said re: doing “front-end work”. Physical tics are something I’ve been using more and more, especially when I write in first person POV.

    I find that when you’re primarily throwing your main character’s thoughts and feelings at the reader, it can be hard to shift the reader’s attention onto a secondary character. That’s when a secondary character’s physical tics (like looking away, scratching his/her chin, unintentionally spraying spittle when talking, haha) can shift the focus onto something outside of the main character’s headspace.

    When I first started writing first person POV, I tended to use my main character’s thoughts and opinions to paint a picture of the secondary characters. But that’s (often) telling, not showing. Also, the reader wants to be an active participant in the story, which means that there has to be space made for the reader to come to his or her own conclusions about secondary characters. Physical tics to the rescue, once again.

    This video on how Akira Kurosawa composes movement may interest you: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=doaQC-S8de8

    Some great insights about characterization there. 🙂


  4. Pingback: What is Deep POV? (Spoiler: It’s “Show Don’t Tell”) « Quintessential Editor

  5. Pingback: Point Of View Perspectives – Steps In Between

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