Articles / On Writing

Quick Tip: Hold that Breath!


He breathes. She is breathing. They take a deep breath. He exhales. She inhales. It sucks in a shuddering breath and lets it out through its nose. His breathing is loud. Her chest rose and fell silently…

My quick tip would be to never use this type of phrasing in your story, ever, and to just trust me on that, but this is a teaching blog so here we go.

I must admit that when I see mundane mentions of breathing in a manuscript, the hand holding my red pen-o’-doom twitches. A tic might start somewhere between my eye and grimacing mouth. And a shudder rolls down my spine. Also… Well, you get the picture. I don’t like characters that breathe just because they can. It’s a pet peeve, I guess.

There are two types of breathing a character does. Breathing which has no purpose but to let the readers know the character is alive and breathing that is a showing “telling” action. The latter is good, but the other kind can murder your scene faster than a crazed psychopath can murder the dumb blonde in a slasher film.

There’s an ironic twist when it comes life and writing fiction. Obviously, if you the author stops breathing, you stop living but when characters in your story start breathing in the literal sense (figuratively), your manuscript starts dying. That’s not to say you should never have a heavy sigh in your story or a character inhaling or exhaling, but it’s easy to go too far or use this action as a crutch. Often mentions of breathing in a story only serve as filler to pad the word count. And when you have a limited amount of space to tell a story, every word, action, and reaction should be important.

There are certain actions that are intrinsic. The readers just automatically assume that the characters are doing these things. For example: their hearts are beating, they’re blinking, feeling, knowing, understanding, seeing, looking, thinking, and breathing. These are things which rarely need to be stated. This means showing these actions is redundant. Characters are presumed to be alive, so they are doing all the things that humans do every second of the day without thought.

Redundancy is like a disease in your manuscript. It eats up precious space with information the readers already know, have inferred, or just believed to be true. It should be cut out at every opportunity.

I’d equate relating the fact that your character is breathing to announcing their heart is beating. Basically, unless a character has just been raised from the dead or is a vampire or a zombie, their heartbeat doesn’t have much bearing on a scene. Likewise, don’t mention breathing unless it’s crucial—such as someone gasping for breath because they are choking, sucking in a breath because they are shocked, are listening to some perv heavy breathe on the phone, or are noting that their blind date is a mouth breather.

Now, this is where I’d typically tell you to go write something, but today, I’d like you to do a little clean-up exercise first. I want you to open that manuscript, hit ctrl F or use the “find” function, type in “breath,” and eradicate every unnecessary mention of breathing.  And when you’re done, then you should get back to writing. 🙂



  1. Good advice, well taken. Worked til nearly 3 a.m. to clean up a chapter, but I’m betting that when I do as you advised I’ll find a couple of those dastardly laggers still hanging around.

  2. I went through my WIP and only found four that were essential. Thanks for the great tip.

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