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iLesson: The Empty Gesture

Gesture: 1. A motion of the limbs or body made to express or help express thought or to emphasize speech.

During a great, productive writing session last night, my friends and I got to talking about character gestures in our writing. We tend to do them a lot, as action tags and as ‘shorthand’ for showing emotion. But are they actually effective, or do they just clutter up writing with meaningless stage business? And if you don’t have any gestures at all, then will your scene be two talking heads?

I don’t like to be wrong–ever–but looking at the chapter that they were critiquing, I could see exactly where my characters’ gestures were basically just empty motion. Not all the time, of course, ’cause I’m awesome. But there were a lot of ‘dancing eyes’ and ‘curling lips’ that were quite cliched superficial.
Say your character is supposed to be mad, and she stomps her foot. By itself, that foot stomp is just a placeholder for authentic emotion. If you do your job, then her dialogue (internal or external) will leave no doubt that she’s angry, and the gesture becomes unnecessary.

Your point of view character has a brain, and is able to interpret expression, tone of voice, and, yes, gestures, just as well as you and I. If she’s been on the planet for any length of time, she’ll know that a stomping foot means that her sister is angry.

Compare: “She vibrated with fury.” with “She shook all over.”

Compare: “His hands clenched.” with “He looked like he wanted to wring my neck.”

It goes back to the pizza pie in the face method of writing. Are you, the writer, making your character stomp her foot because that’s what people do when they’re angry? Or is the action motivated by your character’s emotions?

Actions, like everything else on your page, have to be multitaskers. They can reveal character and give a sense of movement and move the story along. If a character action is just a placeholder for real emotion get rid of it, and replace them with something that will pull it’s weight.

(Credit where it’s due: This post owes much to Jenny Martin, Jamie Harrington, and Chantal Kirkland. They rock.)

2 thoughts on “iLesson: The Empty Gesture”

  1. EXCELLENT post. (And I'm not just saying that because we talked about this.)You articulated this in a way I couldn't. I feel soooo lucky to be able to learn from you and the gang!

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  2. I'm so glad Jamie Harrington started pointing me toward your blog. This is a great post. Now I am going to take a critical eye to every time I use the word "shrugged" in my MS. 😉

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