I Let Out a Breath I Didn’t Realize I Was Holding.
As I read more and more books, one sentence keeps popping up like a demented jack in the box. I slowly crank the musical handle as I read along, knowing it will be coming anytime…anytime now…anyti-POP goes the weasel! There it is again!
“…And then, she let out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding.”
This sentence appears in so many young adult books that it’s become almost a trademark of the “genre” (for lack of a better word), crossing all sub-genres. I have found it strewn across contemporary and fantasy books equally. My attention was first drawn to this phrase when popular booktuber PolandbananasBOOKS mentioned the line as a pet peeve of hers in her “Book Lover Q&A” video, and I haven’t been able to un-see the phrase since. Now you won’t, either. I’m sorry. For those of you who have noticed the phrase, maybe you have experienced a journey similar to mine.
The first time you come across the “unconscious breath-holding” phrase, you think, “Wow! Thats so deep! That’s powerful! This book gets me!” The second time you read it, you gloss over it because its lost some of its power. The third time, it makes you frown. The fifth time, you roll your eyes and move on, determined to not let it ruin the story for you. But really, who are these people who keep unknowingly holding their breath everywhere. You can’t think of a time in your life where you have ever “let out a breath you didn’t realize you were holding.”
By the tenth time you see the phrase, you are seething. You were going along, reading this fabulous book, and you know this author won’t let you down. Not this one! No way! This author is way too witty to put something so unoriginal in this wonderful, perfect story. And then… the main character…lets out a breath…they were unknowingly holding. You pause, shake your head, put the book down, and, for the first time in your life, let out a breath you didn’t realize you were holding!
Somewhere around the twenty-third time you come across the phrase, it becomes funny. The phrase is hilarious to you now, and you appreciate it when you find it. It makes you laugh out loud and clap your hands. You wonder if there is a secret club that only authors who are brave enough to put the phrase in their books are allowed into. They hold a brunch once a year and laugh about their unrealized breath-holding shenanigans as they “sit around and soak up each other’s awesomeness.”
Sometimes you also come across the phrase “She let out the breath she was holding.” Ooooh, close, but no cigar. She must have realized she was holding that breath. You realize these authors must not be part of the Unrealized Breath Holding Brunch Club. Maybe they tried to get into the club but were rejected, and that made them realize they didn’t want to be a part of the stupid club anyway, and at that moment, they let out the breath they didn’t realize they were holding.
The thing about the phrase is that it never changes. You can’t really innovate the phrase. It is what it is. I find the most appropriate usage of the phrase is when a character finds out a loved one, who was in danger, is now safe. The awful, stressful time of a loved one being hurt or in danger is the most understandable time for someone to not realize they were holding in a breath and, metaphorically, their emotions. They let the breath go along with their worry and fear.
I wonder if I will ever know who the first person to write the phrase was. Did Shakespeare coin the phrase? Did Ophelia let out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding, “Hey nonny, nonny”? Who is responsible for creating this secret club. Now I collect the phrase. I enjoy seeing it. I feel like it’s a wink from the author to the reader. I appreciate it and wink back.