In life, when we talk to one another, we generally don’t declare our lines while standing at attention, our arms pinioned at our sides like exclamation points.
We move around and we position ourselves in various postures, such as slumping, hanging our heads, or if we’re angry, stomping around. When the occasion calls for it, our facial expressions morph into smiles, frowns, smirks, and pouts. Our hands come alive, waving or cutting through space to emphasize our every word—or to dismiss what the other person is saying.
But often in our writing, we entirely overlook these behaviors—gestures—that accompany, emphasize, and define our human interactions. Instead, we might write. “I listened while she told me a long, shocking story.”
What were you doing while she told you this long, shocking story? Did you squirm with discomfort? Raise your eyebrows in surprise? And was she doing anything with her body to underscore this “shocking” story?
Examples of the use of gestures:
- “That happens all the time,” Samos pointed out, shrugging.
- The doctor chuckled and ambled out of the examining room to get a fresh cup of coffee.
- I ended the conversation in disgust, then poked my phone again to make another call.
As a New Yorker, I was surprised on my first visits to New England (where I now live) at what seemed to me the stillness of New Englanders. Where I was from, every conversation, every thought almost, was an occasion for jerking our heads, bellowing out something over our shoulders, or doing little dances when we heard good news. But not in New England. People here seemed well behaved to me. Too well behaved.
Which led me to think more deeply about these physical motions that go along with our speaking and that express our feelings—sometimes even when we’re alone.
I asked my adult memoir and life story writing students in a class I teach to use gestures in their next assignment. Some did; others missed the opportunities their topics offered them, though gestures add depth to all kinds of writing, whether novel, short story, memoir, and sometimes even poetry.
But one woman did not include gestures in her essay. Instead, she wrote about gestures themselves.
She was born and reared in a country, where, as she described it, physical gestures are large. Hugging is common. Emotions are freely expressed and underlined with gestures. A man from from a different country noted that in his culture, few gestures are used.
But even if the gestures are subtle, they still can be included. Someone might simply stammer, nod his head, lean forward, or stare at the floor when downcast. People probably stretch when they’re tired or when their limbs feel cramped. All these motions should be included in the writing so that characters appear alive, rather than robotic.
In your creative writing, do you remember to show your readers what people are doing?
If you want to know more about integrating gestures into your writing to enhance it, take a look at:
And if you’d like assistance getting gestures into your writing or otherwise strengthening it, use the Contact tab above to get in touch with me. We’ll see how I can help you out.