In Which the Four Horsemen of the Prose-ocalypse Star

This morning I read a post over at Debbie Maxwell Allen's Writing While the Rice Boils which carried me through cyberspace to an old 2009 post about the Four Horsemen of the Prose-ocalypse. Basically, emotional cliches or the four areas of the body that are well-known hit sites for emotional bombing in novels.

Mary at said that these areas are the:
  • Eyes
  • Heart
  • Lungs
  • Stomach
She then goes on to list a number of cliched phrases about each of these areas of the body which I personally have seen far too many times. i.e. He cast his eyes to the ground. And I shall dismount my high, white horse; I am incredibly guilty of implementing and encouraging these four horsemen.

I struggle to come up with new phrases and cool, fresh spins on things as simple as that knotting in your stomach, that ache in your lungs, or the teary sparking in the back of your retinas. And though these four horsemen are lovely, I think they have a couple kid-brothers that we see somewhat but not enough.
  • The Horse-brother of the Hands. I once had a character that talked with their hands and fiddled with a ring on their thumb; they then went on to get varying sensations whenever they were nervous, tired, angry, etcetera. But with their hands. There's tingling, sweatiness, greasiness, aches and pains, knots and cramps. There's gripping your hands, steepling your fingers, pointing and gesticulating (one of The Worst words - always throws my mind into the gutter).
  • The Horse-brother of the Back. I think this guy's a recluse, personally. We rarely ever see him - in my last revision I gave this sort of emotional thingawhatsit to a protagonist. If he got tired, angry, happy, upset, worked-up or nervous, he would get shooting pains, tingling up his spine, itchy spots, uneasy tightness, cramps, etcetera.
We should also note that there's a lot of distant cousins and such of these Horsemen, such as he of the Mouth, of the Brow and of the Knee.

But if you know that you're an unintentional supporter of the Four Horsemen, don't fret. That's what the Angel of Revision is for. Hell, I've had my days where looking at my manuscript, I can honestly say that my choice of words could start the Apocalypse, but I've been working at it for over a year now, and it's paying off.

I find that a lot of these phrases turn out to be comparisons - similes or metaphors that the writer thinks fits. So take, for example, My heart clenched in my chest like a giant fist. First of all, I think someone once told me that your heart isn't much bigger than your fist, so, really, if it's a giant fist, I'd get that checked. Second, we'll get back on track. So take that and think, alright, what would that feel like. How would the rest of your body respond to it. Would you double over? Gasp? Clutch at your chest? Tear-up? The response to the pain usually furthers the reader's understanding of it.

A lot of people hold the belief that you should just avoid describing eyes and their motions all together, for whatever reason they hold. I don't agree with this. Eyes are renowned as the emotional gateways and the most famous of all the Horsemen. But the actions often don't fit the emotion and writers almost use it as a lazy way out of deepening the reader's understanding of the character.

YA is the greatest guilty party, they're the leaders of the Horsemen cult. They've got tattoos, man. Teenagers, apparently, are only capable of a very limited number of emotional body movements. Shrugging, crossing their arms, rolling their eyes, scoffing, smirking (Oh, God! The smirking! The horror.), chuckling, or cocking their eyebrows. Do their lips not twitch? Do their heads not tilt?

When you're setting up your characters and thinking about their quirks, you know, how they jingle their keys and how they like their coffee, write a heading: the Horsemen, and then figure out how their body reacts to certain emotions.


Trisha at: December 15, 2010 at 11:34 AM said...

Great post, and this is what I need to work on with my next read-through/edit of last year's NaNo (it will be my third revision). I think I've managed to get rid of a lot of cliché already, but I definitely need to work harder to find alternative ways of saying the same old thing.

Debbie Maxwell Allen at: December 15, 2010 at 4:52 PM said...

Love your additions to Mary's post--you nailed them! And thanks for the mention.


Falen (Sarah Ahiers) at: December 16, 2010 at 6:21 AM said...

I hope the Angel of Revision visits my work with a frickin flaming sword. Because that would be AWESOME!

Aimee L Salter at: April 14, 2011 at 7:17 PM said...


I've been keeping the Horsemen in work for almost two years now.

*Doubles Over To Indicate Giant Fisted Heart-Wrenching*

I have to go revise... >Again<

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