Movement with Meaning

Real people are never still. Gesture and movement are part of our language. They usually complement what’s being said, but they can also tell us things the speaker didn’t mean for us to know. Our experience of people guides our interpretation. Because readers come equipped to understand body language, writers can use it to show rather than tell. We don’t want to clutter the page with insignificant movements that readers will simply tune out (see Resisting Your Own Autosuggest), but well-chosen gestures and movements present opportunities for writers:

1. Enriching Character. Distinctive, authentic gestures convey personality. We recognize people by the way they do things. In Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, when Boris pulls his chin back or pinches his nostrils shut, we feel that we know him. Only he would blow his nose sloppily, inspect the contents of the Kleenex and wince (p. 564). Body language can also open up depth, especially in characters reluctant to reveal themselves. When Boris leaves Theo behind in that scene – “his gait loosening and lightening as soon as he thought he was out of my view” (p. 565) – we immediately grasp that Boris has been hiding something from Theo and realize how tenuous their bond has become.

2. Invoking Sympathy. Small movements can be a subterranean way of engendering sympathy for characters who evoke a mixed response. An example here could be an embittered woman speaking hard truths to a child, but having that woman’s hands open for a moment, then close as if with regret. Imagined actions can be even more subtle – those considered and not taken – as contemplated within a close point of view. In Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (p. 180): “She would like to rest a hand on Marlene’s head, but this is not the kind of thing Olive is especially able to do. So she goes and stands near the chair Marlene sits on, gazing out that side window there, looking down at the shoreline….” Olive’s urge to touch Marlene makes her sympathetic, but her inability to do so is heartbreaking.

3. Creating Layers. Gestures and staging can contrast with narration and dialogue to set up an unreliable narrator, in books such as Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Girl on The Train by Paula Hawkins. They act as our clues. Contrasts like these can also be mined for irony and humor or built up to increase the tension. Jennifer Egan does both in A Visit from the Goon Squad (pp. 180-183) when, in contrast to the typical back and forth of an entertainment interview, the reporter keeps taking little inappropriate actions such as staring at the movie star’s legs. Finally, he experiences an urge to push her back on the grass and then does, which launches a scene of full-blown action, while retaining the tone of dark absurdist comedy.

4. Marking Transitions. Movement can be of great practical use to a writer. For instance, small actions can be used in place of attributions like “said.” Movement draws the reader’s attention; we assume whoever moves is the one who speaks. Similarly, gestures can help us to transition between current time and memory or between dialogue and thought. Not only does movement draw the eye, a gesture can carry a sense of intimacy that invites us deeper. In Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (p. 330), we move seamlessly from outside to inside the character of Jaslyn: “She rubs her hands together, nervously. Why, still, this small feeling of tightness at her core?”

5. Inspiring Discoveries. Gestures are easy for writers to improvise – to try on, if you will. They may open up paths we didn’t know we were on. They encourage us to surprise ourselves by making our scenes more real and vivid and may lead us to unexpected discoveries. All of us – writers as well as readers – interpret body language without consciously meaning to. Remember always to picture how your characters would move as they speak and listen and think, and you may find yourself learning something important and new about them.



Writing as a Full Body Experience

Photo courtesy of Luc Viatour / www.Lucnix.be
Photo courtesy of Luc Viatour / www.Lucnix.be

Writers have to learn to work on more than one level. At the same time we’re writing, we’re also reading – we’re both creating and reacting. While my mind keeps track of the story and the character’s progress through a scene, my heart is connected to her mood and my gut is registering tension. All my senses are alert to what her senses would be. (I could add that my hands are typing, but you get the idea.) If I have a character say something that doesn’t suit her state of mind, I get a sense of disconnection which tells me that I have to go back. If the tension flatlines, the first clue is that my stomach has unclenched. To some, this full body approach to writing comes naturally, but it can be an acquired skill. Often I go over a scene numerous times, focusing on three levels in particular.

First, the heart check: is the character carrying forward her emotional experience up to this point? If something angered her in the last chapter, that should still be throwing off some heat. If she’s anxious, that should color what she says. If the story is in first person or close third, then everything in the scene should be filtered through her state of mind, even the description of objects. The most effective and authentic way to accomplish this is to carry that state of mind inside yourself. This will allow you to go beyond the analytic (she should) and experience the filtering directly in an act of sympathetic imagination (she would). I assign this to my heart simply as a way of ordering the experience. What I’m talking about here is deep identification with our characters.

Next, the gut check: is there tension? Would a reader need to read on? Is there a mystery, a worry, an unfulfilled desire, a conflict, or even just a disquieting imbalance, something that a reader would want to see through? As writers, we must try to anticipate the sensation of reading our work as honestly as we can. To captivate others, we have to captivate ourselves. As you write, is your stomach so tense that the world outside falls away? Or do you find yourself starting to skim? The feedback of your body doesn’t lie. I assign this one to my gut, which is where I actually experience this kind of independent processing. What I’m talking about here, of course, is our identification with our readers.

Last, I return to the mind, which is also where I start. The mind has the biggest job. Character development, dialogue, plot, setting, language, metaphor, the list goes on and on…. Writing is submersive. You have to bring all your talents and faculties to bear. But that is how we can spend so many hours by ourselves at the computer, or with nothing but pen and paper. We carry inside us more than one experience, more than one person. We create a world outside ourselves by expanding the one inside.



Digging to America

Tyler, Anne. Digging to America. Vintage Books (London: 2007).

Digging to AmericaOne of the milder of Tyler’s novels, centered around a set of character studies. Iranian immigrant Maryam realizes that she’s defined herself as an outsider — and yet somehow, in spite of herself, she becomes part of an unlikely pairing of families, and comes to care about the very type of Americans that she thinks she’ll never understand. For writers: Less is more here, but it works. The problems have an everyday quality, but the people are brought to life with such particularity in how they act and what they say, that we can’t help becoming invested in them. Like Maryam, we end up caring about these characters, in a deft application of “show, don’t tell.”



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