The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

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Re: The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

Post by Petronella » March 13th, 2010, 3:26 pm

I seldom use the sighs, eye-rolls, winks, chuckles, growls and such like gestures in my writing. However, I do have a protagonist who, when she is upset, digs around in her garden, or rearranges the furniture.

For me the most difficult feelings to show are those related to sadness. Somehow tears running down a characters cheeks seem so cliche, and yet so fitting.

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Re: The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

Post by a_r_williams » March 13th, 2010, 4:41 pm

Yep, I'm guilty!

Sighs, smiles, looks, glares, grins, frowns, and to a lesser extent jaw clenching, fist clenching.

The thing is I know that I do this and it annoys me to no end. The problem is figuring out the proper balance between stage directions, character description, and dialogue. I usually have a tendency to pull out these tricks when characters are talking--as others have mentioned communication is only partially relayed through the spoken word.

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Re: The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

Post by bcomet » March 13th, 2010, 7:32 pm

This is something I think about all the time.

I just checked my WIP and over 80,000 words, I used "sighed" 18 times.(But in my mind, I thought I used it about 800 times.) It creates a breather, but it is way too useful/usable.
(she sighed) :-D

How I hate to tell you how many times I used the word "and."

There are invisible words that writers don't see in their own writing. Word cloud is very revealing in that phenomenon.

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Re: The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

Post by christi » March 13th, 2010, 9:11 pm

I try to use them in moderation; cliche gestures like 'shrugged.' I very rarely ever use a sigh, but I've used the occasional eye roll when a character is being sardonic. I also try to use character tics like false smiles, ones that tug at the corner or raise a brow or squinting an eye (which belies mistrust or confusion), shifting on their feet (also telling of discomfort or confusion), hands on hips, tapping feet (for anger, impatience, or nervous energy), but for the most part I let my dialogue express what they are feeling. That does not mean they say, 'You make me angry. Me need hug.' I use the delivery of the dialogue to express their uncertainty, confusion, anger, joy, shock, or just smartassedness (my word. you can't have it).
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Re: The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

Post by JustineDell » March 13th, 2010, 9:36 pm

bcomet wrote:This is something I think about all the time.

I just checked my WIP and over 80,000 words, I used "sighed" 18 times.(But in my mind, I thought I used it about 800 times.) It creates a breather, but it is way too useful/usable.
(she sighed) :-D

How I hate to tell you how many times I used the word "and."

There are invisible words that writers don't see in their own writing. Word cloud is very revealing in that phenomenon.
My beta has recently pointed out my over usage of several words: press, calm, soothe, anger, pull. (include ed's and ing's with these as well) It's funny that I never noticed the repetition before. Now, when I read through the ms, it's almost as though they are neon yellow, screaming at me!! And when I read other books, same thing.

As for the shrugs, sighs, eye rolls, and the like: guilty as charged. Although, I've been trying to work on it verbally or give people certain tics of their own. In my current wip, the heroine has OCD and everytime she gets upset, or nervous, she moves stuffs around, cleans, shuffles things, etc. I think I'll do what you did, use the "find" function in word and see how many times I made the fatal mistake.


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Re: The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

Post by Mira » March 14th, 2010, 4:36 pm

Great question! Intersting to think about. I like all of the replies and the suggestions. I love the one about how a character might have a specific reaction - Jane always puffed her cheeks, or washed the dishes when she was angry, for example.

For dialogue, one suggestion I might add, in addition to word choice, is pacing. Pacing in dialogue can convey feelings. A pause, an even meaured tone, a rush of words all of these convey feelings.

Another suggestion is one of action. Action in response to something can convey emotion as well. Slamming a book on the table, flopping bonelessly into a chair, hugging oneself, doing alittle jig :), these all convey feelings - as does non-action - didn't move a muscle, stopped breathing, stared into space.

In addition to dialogue - thoughts. The thought flashed through his head that he was about to explode into a million pieces and Mildred would have to spend hours cleaning his bloody bits off the walls. Served her right.

Finally, I think it's okay to name feelings, occasionally. She felt so sad, it physically painful. The rush of joy was immense, and Bob was sure, for a moment, that all of creation did alittle jig. Or just: He was disappointed to hear that. Sometimes simple is best, and telling isn't quite the same with emotions (I think, I could be wrong here) because the reader will feel alongside the character.

Hope some of these were helpful!

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Re: The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

Post by mmcdonald64 » March 14th, 2010, 9:11 pm

Ink wrote: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?
6-10 times an hour. Seriously. It's a biological function to keep the airways open. It's why, when someone has major surgery, they get one of those plastic doodads called an incentive spirometer and are told to use it 10x an hour. Okay, I'm being techincal here because I'm a respiratory therapist, and sighs are covered in the first few weeks of RT school. lol.

I know what you're really asking is how often do people sigh to add emphasis to what they are saying or feeling. I bet if you watched closely, you would see people doing it in real life. I work at a hospital, and I see nurses sigh all the time. Usually it's in frustration, or because they are overwhelmed. I try to keep my characters sighing to a minimum (unless they've just had major surgery ;-) ) but they do creep in. I also use hand flicks, eyebrow quirks, jaw clenching, lips compressed, swallowing and probably way more stuff than I should. When I edit, it's one of the things I look out for. I swear, sometimes it seems my character has ants in his pants, he's moving so much! That's when I get out the chainsaw, and start pruning.

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Re: The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

Post by SusieQ » March 15th, 2010, 12:52 pm

One thing that's helpful is to be mindful of the character's surroundings and to use the props that provides. The things one might do in a kitchen, frex, to express an emotion will be different than what one will do in the bedroom or in a restaurant. Or so one would hope.... Making use of the environment helps keep things fresh.

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Re: The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

Post by Serzen » March 15th, 2010, 7:41 pm

One of the ways I try to handle some gestures is to describe the action rather than name it. Instead of "sighed", which can convey one of any number of emotions, I might pick something like "heaved out a breath." In context with dialogue it carries more specific meaning, frustration being a good example. Another method is to NOT do something. (I'll show this momentarily.) Also, I like using cadence of the contextual words to give more meaning to the 'gestures' themselves.

...[Y]ou find yourself strangely serene at seeing Jamie off. The two of you hold hands, facing each other, regarding each other's eyes in the awkward yellowing light of the outdoor lamps. Everything that should have been said already has been, yet the feeling that more remains sits heavily in your chest.

"Be careful," you say, again.

"I will," Jamie replies, squeezing your fingers and giving you a smile.

You draw in breath to sigh but catch yourself, instead simply repeat, "I love you. I'll miss you."

"I love you, too. I'll miss you, too."

A hug, a kiss, another hug and Jamie draws away. "I'll see you in two weeks." Then, turning to the car, "I'll be late if I don't leave now."
I feel (of course I do, I wrote it) that the lead in sets the tone and creates an area where gestures are A, less needful and B, clear in their meaning. The second sentence is nearly all gesture, perhaps on great big gesture, but it's also tonal. I also think that the un-sigh says more than a sigh itself would.

So, I guess, the short version: Describe the action instead of naming it ("Your reflection stares back at you, one corner of its mouth pulled down in displeasure"), use the anti-sigh, and use good context text delivered with good timing to make any gestures more meaningful.

Il en est des livres comme du feu de nos foyers; on va prendre ce feu chez son voisin, on l’allume chez soi, on le communique à d’autres, et il appartient à tous. --Voltaire

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Re: The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

Post by PaulWoodlin » March 16th, 2010, 12:16 am

The gesture I'm conflicted about is laughter. I mean, there simply are times when a character ought to laugh, but I was told that if the character laughs, then the reader doesn't have to. But even if that is true (is it?), then how humorless do I want my characters to be?

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Re: The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

Post by dios4vida » March 16th, 2010, 12:15 pm

I'm experimenting with a new process in my current edit - during the first draft I write whatever I think conveys the emotion. You guessed it, they're all sighs and moans and shudders. Now that I'm in my first edit and I know the characters better I'm replacing those with the unconscious tics previously mentioned. When my MC is nervous, he rakes his fingers through his hair. It's a more natural gesture (it's something a friend of mine always did) and after a little introduction I can show that he is nervous just by saying that. I'm still working on my other characters' quirks but so far I think this is really working out well. It's much easier to do it after you're journeyed through an entire novel together than sitting down with an outline saying what they'll do when they're upset. It seemed natural for my MC to act this way, instead of forced. And I think that's the key to making gestures invisible and believable.
Brenda :)

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Re: The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

Post by marilyn peake » March 16th, 2010, 6:45 pm

I think one of the best ways to avoid relying on gestures too much is to concentrate on overall character and motivation, and to let gestures flow from that. For instance, someone who’s mean will do and say so many different types of nasty things, the gestures can take on a wide variety of types. And, when that person is kind, it rounds out their character and ushers in the opportunity for the writer to include additional gestures and mannerisms. Also, seeing a character through another character’s eyes allows you to paint the portraits of two characters at the same time. It’s tricky to do well, though.

In addition to that, describing a character with symbolic language can oftentimes substitute for describing a gesture in great detail. For example, if you describe a mean character as arching their eyebrows into the shapes of venomous snakes, the mention of venomous snakes adds to the aura of nastiness. That’s really tricky to do well, though, since the language also needs to sound interesting rather than trite.
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Novels: THE FISHERMAN’S SON TRILOGY and GODS IN THE MACHINE. Numerous short stories. Contributor to BOOK: THE SEQUEL. Editor of several additional books. Awards include Silver Award, 2007 ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards.

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Re: The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

Post by Calliopenjo » March 19th, 2010, 9:48 pm

I don't write in gestures unless that's how the character communicates or it's really pertinent at the point in time. I express my emotions with dialogue, thought, body language. . .

Someone walking along the seashore at sunset, watching their feet leave imprints in the sand I think says something.

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Re: The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

Post by D. G. Hudson » March 21st, 2010, 7:15 pm

Gestures and certain cliche' responses -- like the eye-rolling, twisting of the hair, etc. -- are the nervous reactions we might see in reality.
Using these common terms to illustrate emotional reaction may be due to the extensive visual bombardment we receive every day through our tech toys -- gameboys, xbox et all, our tvs, computers, and advertising. We fixate on blatant visual interpretation rather than the subtle. Because of the proliferation of visuals, we have forgotten the nuance, the suggestion of an emotion by a small behaviour.

It's very difficult, but I try to remember what one writing instructor said -- use the five senses to show emotion and to make the setting more real. Body language, and manner of speaking can illustrate emotions. Bringing into play the quirks of a particular character can also help indicate when that character is feeling out of sorts, worried, etc. Subtle references to these quirks establish the connection in the reader's mind.

IMO, the uses and application of gestures vary widely with the type of novel or story. The different levels of maturity use different ways of conveying emotions - so we must consider the target audience when showing these gestures. Reactions by a YA or middle grade reader would be consistent with their behaviour, as would be the reactions of a grumpy old senior (stereotype?).

People watching is the best way to infuse the truth of emotions into your writing, but you must observe the little details so you can apply them to your characters when needed.
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Re: The importance (and difficulty) of gestures

Post by THB » March 22nd, 2010, 10:54 pm

This is a great topic. I'm afraid I don't have much to add to this conversation because this is one of the things I am struggling with. My first draft--almost finished now--is riddled with this problem. I've blown by it much of the time because, well, it's a first draft. When I get into revisions, though, I think this will be a big challenge. Some of the "he smiled," "she sighed," etc., etc., will be easy to take out, I'm sure, but in other places, I'm not sure yet how to communicate what I see and hear my characters doing without those gestures. I do believe people sigh and roll their eyes in real life all the time, and as these scenes play out in my head, my characters do these things, too. But how boring for the reader to have to read the same gestures over and over again. I also think, however, that even original character tics or plot-appropriate gestures can become boring and repetitive if the character does them too much. In my WIP, for example, the plot includes a very significant loss that results in several characters shedding tears at various times and in various places. In real life, this is what would happen. In my first draft, this is what happens. But the word "tear" definitely appears too many times, and I'm not yet sure how to fix that.

The optimist in me is hoping that a lot of this problem will disappear just by the volume of overall cutting I'll be doing. (I'm "taker-outer"; I write WAY too many words and then cut, cut, cut.) But some of it will still remain, I'm sure.

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