Monday, May 2, 2016

YA Guy... Holds His Breath!

From the title of this post, you might think I'm waiting to hear back from my editor or something. Actually, I am, but that's not what the post is about.

As you may recall, YA Guy decided a few months ago to post writing advice from time to time. As you may also recall, the plan was to post only when I saw some writing issue in a YA book that I felt needed to be discussed.

Well, the time has come again! Having read lots of YA books this year, I've discovered that it's almost universal in YA to have a sentence that goes something like this:

"I let out a breath I hadn't realized I was holding."

There are variations on this ("I let out a breath I didn't know I was holding," etc.), but the idea's always the same: the character is so focused on whatever makes her/him nervous, s/he doesn't even realize s/he's manifesting one of the physical signs of nervousness.

I've used this line myself. When I did use it, I thought it was amazingly original. Now that I've seen it in roughly six thousand YA books, I realize it wasn't.

Why is this line so over-used? Probably because it sounds cool. "Wow! The character's so nervous s/he doesn't realize s/he's nervous!" But when you actually look at it closely, it's not only unoriginal, it's pretty silly.

When you're nervous, you know you're nervous. In fact, if you didn't know you were nervous, you wouldn't be nervous, inasmuch as nervousness depends on your being aware of it. Ditto with the breath-holding: though I can imagine someone not being aware that s/he was engaging in some sort of random, repetitive motion that manifests nervousness (tapping fingers, etc.), it's a little hard to believe you wouldn't be aware of the fact that you're not, well, breathing.

I also suspect that this over-used and basically nonsensical assertion shows up so much simply because it's used so much; we YA writers have read it so many times we've internalized it, and then it comes pouring out when we want to describe a character's nervousness. And then other YA writers read it in our books, and the cycle continues.

So YA Guy's here to break the cycle. If you want to show that someone's nervous, show that they're nervous. Have them tap their fingers, or sweat, or feel their heartbeat racing, or whatever. You can even have them let out a breath, if you like, but don't pretend they didn't know they were holding it. Better yet, find a way to suggest nervousness that's unique to that particular character. Maybe she tells a bad joke. Or maybe he picks his cuticles. Or whatever. The point is, you'll reveal much more about the character if you don't fall back on stale, stock expressions.

So you can let out your breath now and get back to writing. I bet you even knew you were holding it this whole time.


  1. I don't remember using this one. Now I'll have to go back and check.

    1. If you didn't, you get the gold star for originality!

  2. Great post! And so true. Just reading this, I'm willing to bet I'm guilty. But, no more!

  3. Not guilty ... er ... at least I'm pretty sure I'm not. I agree, not realizing you're holding your breath typically does not happen when you're nervous, but it does happen when someone is in pain. As a nurse, I've often seen people hold their breath for short periods of time without even realizing it. When they do finally breathe, (after I've had to remind them not to hold their breath) they frequently have a very shallow, disordered breathing pattern and I have to tell them, "Long deep breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth."

  4. Great post. On a related point, it's so hard to avoid relying on stock phrases. I had to get rid of so many writing tics like "I can't believe" in my ms.

  5. Interesting comment from the health care professional's perspective. But as Stephanie and Lisa point out, the key here is to try to make our writing as fresh as possible, difficult though that can be!