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.

Making a Moment Count

Bring up the music, cue the lights, zoom in the camera – when movie directors want to make a moment bigger, they can bring a lot of tools to bear. Writers only have words, but that doesn’t mean they can’t invest a moment with similar power. Orchestrating the score is part of crafting a novel: making some moments bigger and others smaller, changing pace, holding a note, building to a crescendo, and quieting down. Making a moment count isn’t simply a question of content. Writers can also use the rich harmonics of storytelling.

1. Rhythm and Beat

Every word in a sentence has its own beat. Every sentence in a paragraph imparts rhythm. Every paragraph in a chapter, every chapter in a book. Writers hear this instinctively. The words we choose and how we order them create a kind of music. For example, when the action in your book speeds up, you want your sentences to reflect this by getting shorter and quicker. When the action slows, you want your sentences to stretch. Storytelling is at base an oral tradition. Research shows that as we read, we speak the words aloud in our head. (In the Brain, Silent Reading is the Same as Talking to Yourself.) Rhythm is an integral part of how writers coax others to listen and believe. To make a moment count, pay attention to the rhythms building up to it, and try to push them to open up and expand. But letting the pace slow doesn’t mean you have to lose tension. If it helps, think of the tension driving the scene as a note you’re sustaining in the midst of an increased complexity of sound.

2. Time and Details

Longer sentences not only slow the pace, they sink us in time. They reflect that our characters are caught in a moment and time seems to suspend. Details stand out that they wouldn’t have noticed before. Racing down a hall, your protagonist wouldn’t notice the sweat on his lover’s face, but hiding in a dark corner, dead silent, two inches away from each other, he’d notice the way a droplet pools over her lip that she doesn’t dare wipe away. In this way, a moment can enlarge even in the middle of action. A world within a world seems to blossom. In terms of music, details make me think of Mozart: all those wonderfully precise notes.

3. Depth

Depth is essential to making a moment bigger. For a moment to matter, it must hold stakes for your characters. Your readers need to know that, but this doesn’t have to be a “tell.” You can include details or images that evoke something we know about from earlier in the novel. You can use revealing gestures that give a character’s feelings away. You can add metaphor, either one that carries power on its own or that expands on a previous metaphor – preloaded with meaning. Or you can summon up a vivid memory tied to the senses or captured in a fragment of scene. In other words, to make a moment count, consider deepening to intensify, rather than increasing the action – an emphasis on the vertical as opposed to the horizontal. Let us hear the deep bassoon, the double bass.

4. Restraint

I know this may seem counter-intuitive, but restraint can be more powerful – and sympathetic – than extreme drama. Hyperbole and histrionics can turn readers off. Rather than forcing a moment to be bigger with sobbing characters or lots of pushy adjectives and adverbs, try to build your way up with strong verbs and specific nouns. If this seems difficult, don’t worry when you write your first draft, but later try removing most of the adjectives and adverbs to see what you have left and rebuild from there. The simple, strong melody at the heart of your scene is often the most moving.

More than anything else, remember to listen as you write. Listen and trust your ear.

Photo courtesy of woodleywonderworks via a Creative Commons License.

Resisting Your Own Autosuggest

iphonesWe’ve all been there – when we’re running late or feeling lazy or trying to dash off an email during a stoplight – those moments when we’re grateful that our phones seem to anticipate what we want to say. “That sounds good.” “I’ll call you later.” The words pop up on the screen before I even think them. Predictability eases me down the well-worn path. See, it just happened again.

Good fiction writing requires us to resist the predictable, both the sort that everyone overuses – common cliques, trite metaphors, tired character tropes – and our own personal collection. All of us have favorite gestures, facial expressions, descriptions, and snatches of dialogue. In your first drafts, I wouldn’t worry about them. In mine, the characters start out shaking their heads like a contagious tic. But when you edit, make an effort to resist your own mental autosuggest. Here are a few good reasons why (besides not wanting to drive your readers nuts):

To keep readers from tuning out. No one feels a need to bother picturing people who are doing typical things. In a chapter of mine critiqued by the talented Rebecca Makkai, author of The Hundred-Year House and The Borrower, my characters were eating and sipping drinks at a Christmas party. She suggested that I give them more unusual food – for example, they could be cracking nuts with old nutcrackers – or unexpected small actions such as making a paper airplane out of an old takeout menu. The same goes for what they say and how they look. In other words, work to make your characters’ behavior different and interesting enough to catch and hold your readers’ attention.

To make everything count. Gestures, expressions and descriptions can all convey meaning. They can be an opportunity to add layers or increase the stakes. Readers notice when a gap opens up between what characters say and what they do. Everyone loves to watch for clues. Thinking of the extra messages that you’d like to send can help you to avoid the repetitive and potentially boring.

To convince yourself of the reality of the scene. Your first and most important reader is you. If you make your characters less predictable, then all of sudden you’ll find yourself needing to pay them more attention. Each time you add another distinctive action or expression to a character, she or he will become more singular and real. Characters will get more specific, gestures more laden, and descriptions more riveting. Your scenes as a whole will take on more texture and complication.

So when you’re ready to revise, try to push yourself past what’s easy and automatic. Try surprising yourself.