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  • Writer's pictureRobb Grindstaff

Sighs don't matter

"When you’re writing fiction, how often do your characters sigh? That's too often."

What is a sigh?

It’s a deep, slow breath that is usually held for a couple seconds. Sighs typically take in about twice the normal intake of breath.

Sighs are involuntary. You just sigh now and then. In fact, if you’re average, you sigh about twelve times an hour. And of course, I know you’re above average.

Did you know you sigh that often? Do you notice every time you sigh? Do you notice people around you sighing that much? Probably not.

Part of the reason people sigh is just the body getting that deep breath it needs to reset itself every few minutes – a nice extra dose of oxygen.

Other times, people sigh as a response to some physical or emotional trigger. You might sigh when you experience a moment in which you are:

- Tired

- Anxious

- Frustrated

- Tense

- Angry

- Resigned

- Sleepy

- Full after a large meal

- Sad

- Happy

- Satisfied

- Disgusted

- Various other reasons

Those are all in addition to the regular sighs that you take twelve times an hour.

When you’re writing fiction, how often do your characters sigh? If you’re writing in first-person voice, how often does your narrator sigh?

I’m going to venture a guess and say way too often. Obviously, your character is probably sighing twelve times an hour. But who notices? In real life, we seldom notice when we sigh, so why would your protagonist notice – and feel the need to narrate it – each time she sighs. Most of the time, we don’t even notice when someone around us sighs, unless it’s exaggerated and loud. Like a surly teenager who has been told no more texting her friends until her room is clean.

I recently edited a novel in which characters sighed 186 times. The characters also probably blinked, yawned, sneezed, scratched, and farted, but the writer didn’t feel the need to mention those. So why do sighs get top billing in our writing?

Usually, the writer wants to convey the emotions of the character, and figures that saying Suzie sighed is better than saying Suzie was frustrated. You know, that old “show, don’t tell” advice for writers. Surely a sigh helps paint the scene better than a direct telling statement.

But does it?

If we don’t know why Suzie is sighing, then that sigh doesn’t tell us anything. It might be frustration. Or maybe she ate a double bacon cheeseburger and she’s satiated.

Without letting the readers feel the emotion that triggers the sigh, the sigh is meaningless. You might as well say, “Suzie blinked twice and farted.” It provides the same amount of information about Suzie’s emotional state-of-mind.

You rewrite the scene to make sure the reader knows Suzie is frustrated, knows why Suzie is frustrated, and can feel Suzie’s frustration. That way when Suzie sighs, readers will know the reason for the sigh.

Why? If readers can feel Suzie's frustration, you no longer need that useless sigh. It’s redundant and adds nothing to the moment.

Don’t tell me Suzie sighed. Don’t tell me Suzie sighed from frustration. Make me sigh as I feel Suzie’s frustration.

Do a word search on your manuscript and count how many times characters sigh. Look at each one and see if it's really the best way to convey that moment to readers.

Try that on for sighs and see if it fits.

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