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.



A Visit from the Goon Squad

Egan, Jennifer. A Visit from the Goon Squad. Alfred A. Knopf (New York: 2010).

9780307477477The music industry may link this fascinating collection of characters, but what we experience is each one’s separate, deeply personal movement through time as they dance with their demons. The way forward is murky, as it is in our own heads, but there are insights here that light up the page. We see Sasha, who works for record executive Bennie and is in secret a kleptomaniac, standing by her pile of stolen objects with “a tenderness that was only heightened by the shame of their acquisition. She’d risked everything, and here was the result: the raw, warped core of her life.” Egan’s postmodern techniques of fragmentation and ever-changing perspectives only make us more determined to hunt for these treasures of truth – to seek for answers to how and why people change. We get the sense that even in this vain, selfish world, there are people fighting to be honest with themselves, if only for a moment, people struggling to learn. We find ourselves caring about them, often in spite of themselves.

For writers: If you wonder what agents mean by a literary novel with a commercial hook, here is one answer. Don’t be fooled by Egan’s breezy postmodernism: this is a serious book. Her restless narrative techniques complement the edginess of her chosen milieu, and the prose at the heart of every perspective is powerful and lucid. The insights she achieves come from connecting deeply with her characters and staying with them – from the hard work of laying down character-specific actions and details that lead to discovery and truth. And even though the narrative devices vary all over the place, each is chosen with a distinct character in mind: Sasha is revealed through a reluctant close 3rd; naive Rhea through uncensored 1st; egocentric Lou through distant, ironic omniscience; celebrity Kitty through a crazed interview. Near the end, a child obsessed with the pauses in music only lets us peak in through her charts. But there we glimpse one of the most startling insights of all: pauses are a gift, because you’re afraid the song’s about to end, but it doesn’t, not yet. You still have time left for more.



The Corrections

Franzen, Jonathan. The Corrections. Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York: 2001).

The Corrections A brilliant, wide-ranging novel book about a disintegrating family: a managing mother obsessed with getting her adult children home for Christmas as if it could save her life; an autocratic father plummeting into dementia; a pompous son disturbingly dependent on his manipulative wife; a creative daughter prey to self-destructive impulses; and a clever youngest son, victim of his own bad choices. All desperate, all lost, yet grasping at life, they’re rendered so honestly and vividly that the reader can’t help but sympathize. They lurch toward each other, resisting all the way.

For writers: Franzen is exceptional at writing in an extremely close third-person voice, using free indirect style. He doesn’t simply translate his characters; he seems to pull the words right out of their heads. He once confessed to touch-typing his work while wearing earplugs and a blindfold to help him go deep. Try reading a chapter of his, then your own work, to learn what you could do to bring yours closer.