Why I Hate Smirk

I don’t often post about the craft of writing because there are other writers out there who can say what needs to be said far better than I can; plus, I consider this blog a quirky entertainment, and I feel didactical posts don’t fit in very well with that. Plus, it’s preaching to the choir… surely if you are a fellow writer, you know all this stuff already? And if you are a reader, surely you wouldn’t care?

But today I am going to harp on one of my pet peeves: the overuse of smirk.

Smirk is defined “to smile in an affected or smug manner.” In fiction, people most often smirk after they say or do something rude. Often it is used as a tag in place of “said.” It’s not a defensive facial gesture, like an apologetic smile; it goes on the offense, and is intended to show contempt and often rebelliousness in a character.

Problem is, it’s way overused, especially in Romance and YA books. One book I read had at least 40 counts of smirk in about 100,000 words. That’s 39 too many. Actually, 40 too many.

Why do I hate it? It says and does nothing. Picture a smirk in your mind. Can you do it?

Is this a smirk?

Who was the last person who smirked at you or with you? Have you ever seen it outside of a cartoon or graphic novel perhaps?

How about this?

Can you simulate one right now that is unequivocally a smirk and not a lopsided grin or grimace?

I bet you can’t.

Outside of the fact that a smirk is visually ambiguous, in good writing we should be able to tell how the characters are feeling without it, through the dialogue. A sarcastic joke told doesn’t need a smirk. Neither does a smug confession, or a sudden revelation intended to humiliate the hero or heroine. We KNOW what’s going on from the context and dialogue. We can picture exactly what expression is on the aggressor’s face. We don’t need that smirk. It’s overkill.

Perhaps I should blame editors for this, and not the writers? Just spreading the blame.

While I am beefing about smirks, let’s start in on “quizzically raised one eyebrow.” That needs to go in the dumpster as well. I’ve seen it everywhere, Mysteries, SF, Fantasy, YA. The reader should know the character is questioning, and perhaps skeptical, by the dialogue and context, and they don’t need this facial tic to drive it home.

Try to raise one eyebrow in a questioning way, like Mr. Spock on the original Star Trek series. Can you do it?

Even worse than reading about characters smirking and raising eyebrows are characters who TELL us what facial gestures they’re making. The whole point of reading first person is to listen to the main character telling you their story, as if they are present, and the stage-directing, as if in a script, of specific, usually unconsciously performed, facial expressions throws a reader right out.

I would also like to add grinned and chuckled to the mix (chuckled is more common in mysteries, for some reason) as well as chimed in and simpered, which fortunately are not used as much as it once was.

You may picture me smirking, grinning and raising my eyebrows now, as I make this post.

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