The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

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The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

Postby Nathan Bransford » 12 Mar 2010, 16:31

One of my biggest struggles as a writer comes on a scene-in/scene-out basis: conveying how characters are feeling. We all know how you're supposed to show someone being sad or angry or homicidal (that one's easy) but how do you do that exactly on the page?

The challenge (for me at least) is avoiding an over-reliance on little gesture crutches. You know what I'm talking about: the sighs, the smirks, the eye-rolls, the chuckles, all those very common shorthands for how a character is feeling. Use them too much and pretty soon all the characters are sighing every other page and then the reader starts sighing right along, only it's because of the repetition repetition.

I admire the great writers who are somehow able to infuse so much personality into their characters without relying on the gesture crutches. How do you approach gesture and revealing emotions? Am I the only one who has problems with these gesture crutches?
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Re: The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

Postby Nick » 12 Mar 2010, 16:47

Personally I've found I usually have an under-reliance on gestures. I pretty much only include gestures if I feel it's incredibly important to drive that particular point home, or sometimes just as an eensty bit of padding. So far, there's one sigh that's just padding. Not wildly out of place, but not 100% called for either. Otherwise my WIP is void of them. Instead, I try to drive home personality via dialogue. That isn't to say I don't set it up within the narrative, but I seem to use dialogue as that final blow of the hammer. Exactly how successful I am at that remains to be seen, but I feel like the reason I end up doing that is because I use to do audio, where it was pointless to include a lot of gestures because there wasn't really a way to convey some of them, like rolling of the eyes, and others just felt pointless to include.


And I just thought of something else, actually. I do use dialogue to drive personality home, but more than anything, I use the text. Not, like, placing a hand on someone's shoulder or something. I tend to under-rely on those, like I said. But there is a slight difference of voice depending upon who we're following. Obviously there are slight differences amongst POV characters, but when you read other books that involve multiple POV, unless it's in first person, the author's voice is pretty uniform. I have different ways of writing sentences and phrasing things for different characters. Not wildly different, but different. And those differences are in line with the characters' personalities.
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Re: The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

Postby Tycoon » 12 Mar 2010, 16:50

I like them... it makes the characters seem more realistic, and to me, that is what bonds you to certain characters. But you are correct if you use to many, then it becomes repetitious and annoying.
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Re: The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

Postby maybegenius » 12 Mar 2010, 16:51

Oooooh oooooh, a chance to post The Bookshelf Muse's Emotional Thesaurus! :D

Granted, most of those fall into the category of "gesture," but there's so much variety so that you're not always falling back on "Billy rolled his eyes" and "Sarah's heart pounded in her chest." I know I often feel like I'm repeating myself, which is tiresome to write AND read.

I personally like to give my characters signature quirks. In my current MS, my MC's mother puts her hand to her mouth when she wants to scream or cry, which she rarely does because she's a Victorian socialite. My MC flushes on her neck and ears when she's feeling extreme emotion. I also try to convey emotion through dialogue. When someone's feeling sarcastic, they make a quip. When they're upset, they tend to speak in short bursts.
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Re: The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

Postby Bryan Russell/Ink » 12 Mar 2010, 17:35

I think the problem with a lot of gestures is that they're cliches. They're quick emotional shorthand, and so many writers use the same ones. Blah blah blah, she sighed... Really, though, how often do people actually sigh? A sigh is really more of a fictional convention than something you see very often in real life. So I think a lot of gestures that are used in fiction are really just generic markers. The groans, the sighs, the eyerolls... far more apparent in fiction than in life. I think the trick is finding unique ways to show emotion, to reveal the character. No shorthand. People are full of all sorts of odd little tics. Their uniqueness makes them both more precise and less precise. Less precise because the equation is not so simple. Growl = angry is pretty simple. Emotional shorthand. How often do people actually growl at you in real life, though? Hopefully not too often. So in a sense a unique marker might be more obscure. It might not have any sort of direct emotional equation to offer. Character starts to hum What a Wonderful World= ? But that obscurity invites a more complex interaction with the story. It's necessary to relate the gesture to the context of the story, the action and dialogue and subtext... and from that you might draw a very specific and powerful emotional resonance.
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Re: The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

Postby charlotte49ers » 12 Mar 2010, 17:38

You just earned a fist bump from me because I'm right there with you! I've been trying to infuse a lot more personality into my dialogue so that I don't have to rely so much on sighs, etc. I'm only on my first draft, so I know I'm going to have to go back and change a ton, but I think I might go people watching one day and just try to brainstorm in a notebook some of the things people do so I don't fall back on the cliches.

The ATL airport would be awesome for this, actually.
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Re: The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

Postby gonzo2802 » 12 Mar 2010, 18:27

I think the only time I really have a problem with this is when my characters smile at one another. They do it all the time too, all different kinds of smiles; flirtatious, sarcastic, bitter, etc. Only problem is there are only so many times a smile can "curl" or "flash" or "creep" or "crawl" across someone's lips before I start to wonder if my characters need to stop smiling so much and start ... I don't know, glaring more.
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Re: The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

Postby longknife » 12 Mar 2010, 19:27

I think this is a big problem for every fiction writer.
I recently finished a revision where I tried to replace s/he saids with more "showing". Then, I got into a situation about using dialogue to "show" the characters.
In the end, I think it's a combination of those two and many other factors.
Which is more important?
How to keep from being cliche-ridden?

Then, I become more critical about what I read to figure out what my favorite authors are doing and find the use both all over the place.

Think I'll scratch my head and grumble, "Don't think I'll ever find an answer."

Re: The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

Postby polymath » 12 Mar 2010, 19:46

Autonomic emotional responses or calculated emotional responses come in clusters along with contexts. A sigh in isolation is an uninterpretable expression. A sigh and a grimace of one character responding to another character's churlish commentary speaks volumes.
Body language comes in clusters of signals and postures, depending on the internal emotions and mental states. Recognizing a whole cluster is thus far more reliable than trying to interpret individual elements. Understanding Body Language.
Body language, hand gestures, facial expressions, discourse markers, verbal intonation, conversations are fraught with unspoken meaning. Mehrabian's communication studies suggest actual words comprise seven percent of in-person communication, thirty-eight percent of meaning in person from verbal intonation, and fifty-five percent of in-person meaning from body language. Much, much information at on how important gestures are and clues for how to depict them, and then some.
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Re: The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

Postby bronwyn1 » 12 Mar 2010, 20:03

I totally rely on gesture crutches (and in my revisions, I'm trying to remove them, but at the same time, still keeping the emotional context of the situation). You're right, it does get repetitive and even annoying to see all the characters sighing and rolling their eyes all the time.

Another problem (or I guess I'd call it a problem) I have is also relying too much on action (i.e. "Blah Blah Blah." He walked to the door. "Blah blah blah." He turned the doorknob) to drive the scene as well.

I suppose, like all things, sighs and groans and eye rolls are good in moderation, but when you overdose on them in your writing, it becomes a problem.
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Re: The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

Postby Matthew MacNish » 12 Mar 2010, 20:18

I agree with polymath. I'm not sure it's the kind of thing that can be broken down mathematically quite so simply but what he says makes sense. Think of a simple phrase like ... I don't know ... "I love you". Simply written it seems cut and dried but (not counting punctuation like quotes, questions marks or even exclamation points) it can mean hundreds of things.

I think gestures in fiction are great. As long as they're not cliche or repeated too often in a single work they can communicate a great deal. I actually do sigh in real life quite a bit - just not often during conversation. That being said dialogue has to be first but if I read Nathan's OP correctly he is also referring to scene ins/outs which can obviously sometimes involve only a single character, reflecting, reacting, or even just being. Body language is a HUGE part of real life but the problem is that it's so subtle, visually, that it can seem odd if over emphasized in writing.

Personally I try to combine a some kind of physical description with a metaphoric clue as to what a character is thinking for any important dialogue line, or even inner reflection. For minor dialogue or more simple replies to more important vocalized statement I leave out all text after the quoted speech if it is contextually possible for it to be clear who is speaking. This helps provide some balance between telling and showing - it's obvious which has to dominate but I personally believe a teeny bit of telling will always be required for certain things.

Of course this is all subjective. Certain genres or even certain scenes will require, or at least thrive from, different approaches. I'm guessing you're pretty proficient with all of this by now Nathan, but I can't wait to buy JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW and find out for sure.
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Re: The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

Postby Jaime » 13 Mar 2010, 07:22

I'm right there with you, Ink. Sure, I have sighs, and eye rolls, but more often, I use character gestures that show us their unique tics. For example, my female MC rubs her hands together because they always tingle when she's nervous or anxious. My male MC rubs the back of his head when he's feeling uncomfortable. Instead of groaning, he closes his eyes and flexes his jaw; his nostrils flaring as he tries to control his breathing - and she simply slaps him across the face when she's angry (which she does quite a lot, poor guy). =P

charlotte49ers wrote:. . . I think I might go people watching one day and just try to brainstorm in a notebook some of the things people do so I don't fall back on the cliches.

The ATL airport would be awesome for this, actually.

I think you've definitely got the right idea, Amanda! Watching peoples' reactions is very educational. In my job, I have to ask everyone I meet to take off their shirt. I have the description of 'looking uncomfortable/embarrassed/ashamed/scared-out-of-their-mind/confident/egotistical/nonchalant' down to a tee! And don't worry, I'm a medical professional. No funny business going on ;)
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Re: The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

Postby Ishta » 13 Mar 2010, 10:12

Ink and Polymath: Right On.

I find myself falling into the same trap while writing - using "sighed" or "groaned" or "grumbled" over and over and over. I sometimes end up typing the same sentence 6 or 8 or 12 times before I settle on something I like, and can move on to the next part. (I'm actually now experimenting with just getting the conversation down, and going back and adding the rest of it later; it's going well, so far.)

I draw a lot on my experience and skills as an actor in my writing - thinking about what I would do with my body to convey the emotion I m feeling in this situation if I were playing this character, and noticing: Where are my hands? My feet? What am I doing with my legs? My shoulders, my chest? Am I sitting up, or slouching? What is my face doing? Where is the tension in my body right now? How about my toes and fingers? Obviously I don't put every detail into every scene, but if I can hit on one thing that stands out in that moment, then that's what I put in. People watching comes into play a lot here, too. I've always been a people-watcher.

Of course, it remains to be seen if I will ever be published. Maybe this is really, really bad advice. :-)
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Re: The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

Postby Lorelei Armstrong » 13 Mar 2010, 10:18

Make the situation clearer and the drama bigger. Use the story itself. If the scene is clear and the drama is strong, the reader will know what the character is feeling, without all the shrugging, smirking, etc. The characters' actions and reactions will be clear, and their gestures will be unnecessary.

Think about screenplays. They have to be extremely lean, with a minimum number of words (no room for small gestures), and they can only use what can be seen or heard. It can be done.
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Re: The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

Postby Bryan Russell/Ink » 13 Mar 2010, 11:12


While I agree in general principle that as much should be done without gestures as possible, I also think you can't ignore them. They're a tool, like anything else. A small piece of the puzzle. A screenplay, in a sense, is an unfinished thing. It's a guide to a story more than the story itself, completed when it is made into a film (or play, or whatever). And in the film the actors will add back in all those elements of gesture and expression. That's a huge part of the performance. Entirely stripping that from works of fiction might, at times, be dangerous, or at least limiting.

Just my take, though, again, I agree that gestures are often used as shortcuts to get around imprecise writing, unclear action, etc. If you can make a scene clear without using them, all the better.
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