Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.
Do your characters wink so often that their eyes resemble flashing signal lights?
A wink is a vague action that onlookers could interpret in many ways—including friendly, creepy, lecherous, or sinister.
As you write and edit, ask the all-important question.
Why do your characters wink? Knowing the reason will help you choose alternatives.
Common causes include:
Amusement, confidence, flirtatiousness, jocularity, reassurance, secrecy or shared knowledge, sympathy
Try some of the following actions.
Meeting everyone’s gaze
(Exercise caution with the thumbs-up gesture. In some African countries, Australia, the Middle East, Japan, and certain areas of Europe, people will interpret it as an insult.)
Tossing the hair
Touching or stroking someone’s arm
Sweeping one’s gaze over another person’s body
Volunteering one’s assistance
Offering coffee, tea, or alcoholic beverages
Secrecy or shared knowledge
Sending private text messages
Whispering with another character
Exchanging knowing glances with someone
Laying a please-don’t-tell finger against the lips
Patting someone’s back or shoulder
Murmuring optimistic platitudes in a soothing tone
You’ll find other actions and motivations if you search the internet for body language wink.
Let’s roll up our virtual writing sleeves and replace a few winks.
1. Jasmine grinned and winked.
We see no indication of Jasmine’s motivation, although the grin provides direction.
Jasmine exchanged a knowing glance with Wade.
Jasmine and Wade obviously share a secret.
Jasmine tossed her hair and smiled coyly at Wade.
This time Jasmine is flirting with Wade. Although excessive use of adverbs weakens writing, occasional words such as coyly reduce exposition.
2. Celeste winked as she turned toward the living room.
Celeste’s wink is probably a response to an event that just happened—perhaps something funny?
Celeste smothered a laugh as she turned toward the living room.
This provides a vivid image we don’t see in the first sentence, and it clarifies her motivation.
Celeste gave Maurice a warm hug and then turned toward the living room.
A warm hug represents the epitome of friendship. Maybe Maurice wants more. Story prompt?
3. Lacey winked and rolled her eyes at the professor.
A wink suggests different motivation than rolling the eyes. Why confuse readers?
Lacey met, and held, the professor’s gaze.
This portrays a confident Lacey who probably knows the answer to whatever question the professor just asked. The commas emphasize her action.
Lacey gave the professor a thumbs-up.
Once again we see a confident Lacey. In North America, a thumbs-up is an informal gesture. It could indicate an after-hours relationship with a mentor.
4. Amy winked and devoured a sixth doughnut.
Did Amy swipe the doughnut from someone?
Amy snorted and devoured a sixth doughnut.
Same number of words, but now we see conflict that could develop into humor or an altercation with another character.
Amy suppressed a giggle and devoured a sixth doughnut.
This example could likewise segue into humor or a confrontation.
5. Stephanie winked at Clarence in answer.
Is Stephanie answering a question, or responding to Clarence’s actions?
Stephanie answered, “Of course, I’ll go. I haven’t been to Disneyland in years.”
No misinterpretation here. Dialogue often provides the best way to clarify motivation.
Stephanie responded to Clarence with a bright smile.
A wink might be misunderstood, but a bright smile leaves little room for doubt.
6. Tears winked out of Betty’s eyes.
This is a nonstandard use of wink. Since a wink is the quick closing and reopening of one eye, the sentence doesn’t make sense.
Tears flooded out of Betty’s eyes.
Flooded is a better verb choice. Blinked would also work.
Short. To the point. A good choice when word count is limited.
Are you guilty of these wink no-nos?
– George winked slowly.
Have you ever seen anyone wink slowly? By definition, wink means to close and reopen an eye quickly.
– Ethan winked an eye.
What else would Ethan wink? His mouth? Remember the definition.
– Ethan winked out of one eye.
Do I need to identify the problem?
– Zara winked uncontrollably.
A wink refers to a single action of the eyelid. Multiple winks would be tics or spasmodic contractions.
– Andy winked, “Can’t you tell I was joking?”
A wink creates an action beat, not a dialogue tag. You can’t wink speech, therefore the comma in the example should be replaced by a period.
– Dereck winked at Karen in the total darkness of the cave.
Dereck knows that Karen can’t see him. Why would he wink? This would be a good place to insert whispers, stumbling over unseen obstacles, or touching the other person for reassurance.
– Charles gave Marshall a wink.
Charles gives Marshall something. Readers might expect that something to be tangible. Although the sentence is correct, in this case it might be better as: Charles winked at Marshall. This makes the action more direct and less likely to pull readers out of the story for a microsecond.
Avoid similar phrases such as execute a wink, bestow a wink, and impart a wink.
– The police sergeant winked at the bribes taken by constables under his command.
In this context, winked at means ignored. Although the wording is correct, readers might misunderstand it. Why not choose the unambiguous verb, ignored, instead?
– Kris winked to himself privately.
I doubt that Kris would be able to hide a wink. Privately compounds the goof.
– Maria winked as she stared at the gem.
Can you wink and stare at the same time? I can’t. Try this instead: Maria winked and stared at the gem.
– Winking, Maria stared at the gem.
The present participle (ing form) of a verb indicates concurrent action, which is impossible in this case. As in the previous example, Maria can’t simultaneously wink and stare.
Simple wink alternatives convey multiple nuances.
Consider the following sentences and note the subtle differences in meaning. Each replacement for wink was taken from the list at the end of this post.
Libby winked at Harrison.
Libby batted her eyelashes at Harrison.
Libby blinked at Harrison.
Libby locked eyes with Harrison.
Libby nudged Harrison.
Libby peeked at Harrison.
Libby squinted at Harrison.
Time for practice.
Can you remove wink and winked in the following passages? If you see an idea that appeals to you, feel free to grab it for a story prompt.
1. Judy’s eyes flooded with tears. She reached for Nathaniel.
He winked at her and patted her back. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone what you did.”
[This could lead to a humorous story if Judy flubbed something at work. However, if she buried a body in the backyard, you could develop this into horror. What about a combination of humor and horror?]
2. Only ten minutes of FaceTime. Sharon winked as she stared at Sean.
He winked back. “Let’s go. Ten minutes isn’t long.”
[What will Sharon and Sean do in the brief time allotted? You could go for the obvious, or have them plan a robbery. Maybe Sharon needs to rehearse a speech? Remember my remarks about concurrent actions. As indicates that Sharon winks while she is staring.]
3. Keith winked and laid his hand on Jim’s arm.
Jim flinched for a moment and studied the hand before returning the wink.
Keith glowered. “I thought we were good. You having second thoughts?”
[Second thoughts about what?]
Try these instant replacements.
This list provides quick alternatives for wink—handy when you need to conserve words.
Bat one’s eyelashes, blink
Cast a playful eye, crinkle one’s eyes
Elbow, eye, eye up, eyeball
Flirt, flicker an eyelid, flutter one’s eyelashes
Give a seductive look, goggle
Leer, lock eyes
Make eyes, make sheep’s eyes