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How happy is your story?


We've been having a raging debate in the Tips and Tricks Forum about "Smiles in Writing". It started as complaint by Foxee about an author who wrote a weird scene about a character smiling a lot where it didn't seem to fit. Foxee's post and a few which followed were tongue in cheek, but of course it could not stay that way. It soon got serious:

Time to put some numbers and trends to this discussion. I sampled the novels below, from a variety of authors and genres. I only found one novel, HP Lovecraft's Mountains of Madness which had no smiling. Imagine that! (LOL) I did not include it in my stats. I most often picked novels from later in an author's career, to make sure I was getting their 'mature effort'.

From this sample, you can average .52 smiles per thousand words and not feel guilty. (.8 with the standard deviation). My post in reply had me at about .6 smiles per thousand words, and I wondered what the 'norm' is.

So at roughly .6 smiles per thousand, I am indeed in the Goldilocks zone, which is .24 to .80 smiles per thousand.

These are all good writers, successful, well regarded, most with numerous titles published. So we can dispense with the notion there is anything wrong with writing a smile under normal circumstances. The smile totals are probably a bit low, because I only checked for 'smiling' in a few books.

Robert Heinlein, Citizen of the Galaxy, 83K words, 32 smiles

- Stranger in a Strange Land, 211K words, 105 smiles
Jack McDevitt, Coming Home, 107K words, 86 smiles
Dick Francis, Dead Heat, 104K words, 80 smiles
Nora Roberts, Naked in Death, 86K, 113 smiles
Terry Pratchett, The Color of Magic, 66K words, 28 smiles
Anne Rice, Interview with a Vampire, 135K words, 74 smiles
Elizabeth Peters, Tomb of the Golden Bird, 129K words, 104 smiles
Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, 45K words, 18 smiles
Ian Fleming, Goldfinger, 86K, 78 smiles
Frank Herbert, Dune, 197K, 92 smiles
Isaac Asimov, The Gods Themselves, 88K, 30 smiles (half the book is aliens who can't smile LOL)

- The Caves of Steel, 67K, 33 smiles (one of two protagonists is a robot)
- Foundation, 68K, 63 smiles (finally all humans)
Lewis Carrol, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 26K, 6 smiles

- Through the Looking Glass, 30K, 14 smiles
Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep, 67K, 62 smiles
Neil Gaiman, Stardust, 60K, 37 smiles
F Scott Fitzgerald, Complete works, 1,534K, 570 smiles
John MacDonald, Cape Fear, 56K, 28 smiles (if this can have smiles, don't worry)
Katherine Kurtz, Dernyi Rising, 82K, 105 smiles
Erle Stanley Gardner, Perry Mason - The Case of the Postponed Murder, 50K, 24 smiles
Wilbur Smith, The Sunbird, 189K, 118 smiles
Mary Stewart, The Wicked Day, 134K, 83 smiles
JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 184K, 45 smiles
Phyllis Whitney, Secret of the Emerald Star, 86K, 49 smiles

What does all this mean? Don't get hung up on trivial notions. Just write things that read well and tell a good story.

Disclaimer: Image above chosen because: How in the world could the author object to the free pub!


bdcharles;bt15716 said:
What about grins though?

So now you've made me dig into my database of word usage in the English language, which I could have saved some effort by doing in the first place. :) [notice the smile]

"Smile" itself occurs .61 times per 1000 words in American English fiction. Brits aren't as happy. They only use "Smile" .57 times per 1000 words. That data is close to the result from my informal investigation.

However, if you combine all forms of "Smile" (Smile, Smiled, smiling, smiles), including noun and verb usage, they occur 1.8 times per 1000 words.

"Grin" occurs .12 times per 1000 words, and in all its forms (grin, grinned, grinning, grins), including noun and verb usage, they occur .34 times per 1000 words. The only form Brits use more often than Americans is "grinned", which may sadly indicate that Brits were more jolly in the past. ;-)

Of interest, authors used "Smile" much more often in the 1800s, but they hardly ever grinned.

Various "Laughs" - 1.41 per 1000
Chuckles - .12 per 1000
Giggles - .11 per 1000
Snicker - .02 per 1000
Snigger - .003 (reserved for Eliza Doolittle)
Chortle - .009
Guffaw - .009 per 1000 (so about once per 10 lengthy novels)

* Data comes from the 450 million word Corpus of Contemporary American English, and the 100 million word British National Corpus.
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