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In Defense Of Unknowingly Held Breaths

As a writer, your individual style develops as you explore the craft, always evolving. And along the way, you might also develop quirks that pop up in your WIPs on a regular basis and often without the realization that a pattern has formed until someone else points it out.

Maybe your rough drafts rely heavily on telling rather than showing or the first thing your protagonists notice about their respective love interests is the color of their eyes—which are in turn frequently described as resembling the sea. Your sentence structures and lengths of paragraphs might be similar from one to the next, needing to either be extended or chopped up for variation's sake. Certain adjectives may be favored. There might always be a major character death in the fourteenth chapter of your novels. Your characters' names may always start with the letters S, B, O, or M. Or each of your stories somehow always feature a workaholic character who is convinced that romance cannot possibly fit into their life.

That last one's mine.

Quirks like these, for the most part, do not make or break a book. Instead, they're simply things to keep in mind. Some may eventually become a distinguishing mark of your style and something your readers anticipate.

Sometimes, however, writing quirks aren't so good—especially when they are shared by other authors.

Certain phrases become noticeably overused, on the verge of being a cliche sticking out like a sore thumb. When used repeatedly by multiple writers in different books, it can be hard to ignore them. Sighing and saying "oh, this again" takes us out of the story.

One particular phrase that seems to get a ton of flack lately is when a character lets out a breath they didn't know they were holding. It's something I've noticed a number of BookTubers and content creators bring up in their reviews, especially in Young and New Adult, comparing it to how often we see characters in horror lose cell reception or phone lines are cut or how there is frequently a sudden breakup in the third act of a romance novel just to cause conflict. Although each referenced occurrence of a character letting go of a breath they did not know they were holding was found in different books penned by different authors, it is commonly treated as a collective issue that needs to be remedied.

The thing is, characters releasing a breath they didn't know they were holding doesn't bother me all that much.

When used in abundance, as is with the case for any cliche, it can grow stale, but the line itself does what it needs to do.

Writers are often advised to get inside their bodies when writing about their characters' emotions. In other words, focusing not only on what they are feeling but how it is felt. The physical reaction to thoughts. Where the feeling sits within them. For example, their shoulders might droop when they are saddened or they might feel lighter overall when experiencing joy.

This is also where a lot of cliches originate. Things like a character's eyes narrowing when they are angry, the hair on their arms or the back of their neck standing on end when frightened, or their heart beating out of their chest out of anticipation or anxiety.

And, of course, letting out a breath they didn't know they were holding.

This one can be so much more than just a reaction to an emotion. It usually comes amid relief, when a tense situation eases and the character has enough room to breathe for a change.

That's why it works for me.

Characters are often caught up in actions they themselves take to pursue their goals or that they simply happen to get wrapped up in. Depending on the story, they might always be on the go. Slowing down the pace now and then can help readers come to terms with just how fast everything is moving. Allowing moments of reflection can build the bond between them and the character as they assess their journey so far and brace for what is to come.

Regardless of it being physical combat or emotional turmoil, things can get pretty tense in fiction, and your characters might not be aware of how intense the situation is while they are in the midst of it.

That's why they're unknowingly holding onto their breath.

It amplifies how things are only now slowing down enough for them to breathe, or for them to realize how it is affecting their body. Just as they might not realize how much pain they are in until the adrenaline wears off. They may not have been able to take stock of things and check in with themselves because of everything happening around them.

Releasing a breath they didn't know they were holding is so simple and small, but effective in its own way.

I might be diving in a bit too deep and getting too analytical with this one but, despite it being so cliche, I like it. It says what it needs to and more in just a few short words.

But if you're worried about readers rolling their eyes at your characters letting go of breaths they were unknowingly holding, there are ways to rework the cliche. If you want to emphasize their relief, an otherwise standoffish character might pull someone into an embrace or be heard chuckling until it reaches a hearty laugh. Or if things have quieted down and they are left in carnage metaphorical or otherwise, they might be left feeling hollow or heavy.

Cliches become cliches because they work well. They resonate with writers and readers alike. That's why we start to see them sprout up seemingly out of nowhere.

Because it works.

And that's why I may very well defend unknowingly held breaths until my last.



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