Gestures can convey so much in a novel. Well-described gestures can help us divine what a character is thinking, they can create suspense, they can take our breath away.
But in order to work, they need to mean something.
So often when I’m working with authors on edits I see gestures that just don’t really mean anything or don’t add anything new. People looking at things or fiddling with things or turning away or coughing or sighing.
I can absolutely empathize with these authors. One of my own writing tics that I have to watch out for is characters looking at things. And sometimes it feels important to slow down the dialogue for a dramatic pause.
But empty gestures can really add up. They can slow down a scene, bog down the pace, and exhaust the reader, especially if they’re repetitive.
More importantly: they can be meaningful.
The master of gestures is, in my opinion, J.K. Rowling. Part of what makes her characters so vivid is the care she takes to show characters doing things that reveal what they’re thinking and show their character. Hermione rummaging through a bag when she’s embarrassed, Ron turning red, Dolores Umbridge “Hem hem”ing.
Take a hard look at your scenes, especially your conversations, and see if you’re relying on empty gestures that can either be removed or made more unique.
With well-chosen gestures, your characters will come alive.
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Art: Gossip by Eugene de Blaas
Vicki S. says
I knew one person who, in everything they wrote, had their character constantly licking her lips. It seemed like every other paragraph, or before every line of dialog she’d lick her lips. I kept waiting for her to remove her mask and reveal herself as the lizard-person she was.
Karen A Chase says
In Francine Prose’s book “Read Like a Writer” she says that character gestures or actions should be conveying another layer of truth, story, or meaning within a scene that the dialogue does not. For instance, I have a Shawnee character give a dead pheasant to a woman he knows. The two characters sit at her table and have a stilted conversation about the tension on her farm as she plucks and prepares the bird. The act of her bloodied hands pulling out the entrails comes at the moment that she is unable to convey what the politics means for the future of the Shawnee. Throughout the scene her hands are busy and he’s watching her, but the act of preparing to roast that bird (if not the bird itself) is a metaphor and a vehicle for foretelling in the story.
Anne Marie says
This is an anointing habit I usually take of in editing, but I have a question about locomotive writing and how to avoid it. When is it best to cut scene and jump ahead? Or, is there a good technique to get characters from one setting to the next without boring the reader to death?
Actually, convincing and unique gestures are one of the hardest parts of novel writing Ive found. Recently, I read of a character rocking from their heels onto their toes, or something like that. Like you wrote, Nathan, it almost left me breathless as I could see it happening as the character was a sweet-natured guy who’d lived a harsh existence and never had the chance to develop much self-esteem, so it revealed his nervousness and also some hope that he might win favour and understanding. It also revealed his slightly feminine, sensitive nature which was endearing.