It’s a great impulse to physically describe characters and their movements, and too many writers neglect it. Over-reliance on dialogue is a rampant problem among aspiring writers, so introducing some physicality is important.
But what physical description is the right physical description?
Sometimes writers correct too much in the other direction: they include a lot of description of characters moving around a room or picking up and putting down objects or looking at the person they’re talking to that just doesn’t really mean anything.
It’s aimless stage direction. It’s movement without meaning.
How do you avoid this? Here are some tips.
Make your gestures meaningful
Perhaps the biggest pitfall with aimless stage direction involves gestures that just don’t really mean very much.
- Generic gestures, like sighs, eye rolls, characters looking at things, hearts beating out of chests, etc. Actions like these are pretty universal and don’t tell us much about how a specific character reacts to things in an individualized way. Don’t include more than two of a generic gesture over the course of an entire novel. (I mean it!! Two sighs total!!)
- Redundant gestures that are already apparent from context. Often this happens when the protagonist’s mindset is already apparent from the narrative voice or general context, and the gesture that reinforces the mindset ends up feeling like overkill. For instance, characters don’t need to nod and then say “yes.” They can just do one or the other.
- Gesture explosions, where there are three or four or more gestures that basically mean the same thing and quickly result in diminishing returns. (e.g. “Nathan went rigid, his face pale in fright, hands trembling, he gasped…”). These get pretty exhausting for the reader.
- Meaningless gestures. Some gestures just don’t mean anything entirely. We don’t need to see a character moving around a room for the sake of moving around a room, and we don’t need it pointed out that a character is looking at someone they’re talking to. It would be more noteworthy if they weren’t looking at them.
For further reading:
- Avoid these generic reactions
- Watch out for empty gestures in your novel
- How to show a character reacting to a dramatic moment
Mind your verbs
Sometimes authors write incredibly painstaking action that breaks every movement into is micro components. You’ve probably read something like this:
Nathan stretched his right arm and extended an index finger toward the object that caught his interest.
Oh. So… Nathan pointed?
And the thing is, once writers go down this path it is almost never limited just one gesture. Everything tends to be painstakingly described, which makes the reading experience like wading through quicksand. (Not to mention contributing to tens of thousands of extra words over the course of a novel.)
Sharpen your writing and de-clutter your verbs. Choose your actions precisely.
- Clear out the clutter around your verbs
- Don’t over-explain “default” objects and gestures
- What to cut when your book is too long
Don’t over-engineer how readers “hear” dialogue
Often writers include a line or two of action when they want to break up dialogue or create a dramatic beat. Or, they’re including a gesture for the sole purpose of avoiding a dialogue tag.
Both of these approaches are usually misguided.
Readers are going to “hear” your characters’ dialogue differently than what’s in your head. That’s okay. Let them. You don’t need to toss in a bunch of random gestures in order to enforce the very particular rhythm you have in mind. They pile up and get extremely distracting. Use dramatic pauses very sparingly and judiciously.
And every few years it becomes conventional wisdom all over again that you need to avoid dialogue tags for some reason. I strenuously disagree. Dialogue tags aren’t repetitive, they disappear for the reader, who absorbs them and moves on. Don’t use a meaningless gesture just because you’re trying to avoid “Nathan said.”
For further reading:
Movement needs meaning
So what do you do?
Good physical movement within a scene will accomplish a few different objectives:
- It evokes a specific character. Good physical description will help us visualize a character’s physical presence with specificity and individuality.
- It hints at characters’ thoughts and inner lives. Particularly when the character isn’t a POV anchor, we can get quite a bit of a sense of other characters’ thoughts with well-chosen physical description. For instance, rather than saying “the police officer seemed suspicious,” the police officer’s gaze could linger over a chipped coffee table, which will show us they’re suspicious.
- It creates suspense and tension. Whether the characters are enemies or lovers, you can show a series of escalations that build toward a climactic moment.
- It shows a character trying to get what they want. A great way to make a gesture meaningful is by connecting it to a deeper purpose. What’s motivating the character and how are they going about getting what they want?
- It helps us understand how characters are getting from Point A to Point B. Showing where objects and characters are in relation to one another and how they’re arriving/leaving/going places helps the reader visualize the scene.
If you eliminate filler action and focus on individualized and meaningful gestures, your novel will spring to life. Otherwise, the reader will feel like they’re wading through a lot of meaningless muck.
For further reading:
- How to write clear physical description
- Avoid naming universal emotions in a novel
- Why protagonists need to be active
- Show characters getting from Point A to Point B
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Art: Cordelia Championed by the Earl of Kent by Anonymous