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:
Master List of Gestures and Body Language
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.
Andrea Lewis says
As I’ve been writing my second memoir, I vividly remember that you suggested from my previous memoir to make my characters come a live. And so this is exactly what I keep at the back of my mind. I find that It creates a better flow and it’s much more engaging for the reader.
Lynette Benton says
I’m so glad the lesson stayed with you, Andrea. It really does animate writing when we show what characters are doing, rather than just baldly state that “they listened,” for example.
Linda Gartz says
Interesting you should post this now, Lynette. I was just going back into my 5th draft (!) to add gestures, and I turned to Francine Prose’s “Reading like a Writer” for help. She has a chapter on gestures and how several great author’s used them. It can be tricky — so that it comes across naturally in the writing rather than as something “inserted” and unnatural. It’s a technique that requires practice–and another eye to tell us if we’re communicating as we’d hoped.
BTW, interestingly, even though my family is ethnic German and Austrian, boy! Do we use the gestures! My husband says if he cut off my hands I couldn’t talk! My brother is so effusive at times, he’s knocked glasses of wine or water off the table (I have too). I think it adds to the conversation. 🙂
Lynette Benton says
Thanks for weighing in, Linda. I know what you mean about needing to practice working gestures into writing seamlessly so that they come across as natural. (Actually, I find that just about everything about writing requires practice! It feels as if the techniques for strong writing are infinite.) I can relate to your description of your family’s gestures. My family is very dramatic, so every occasion called for waving of arms, rolling of eyes, pursing of lips and more.
Mary Wasmuth says
A very useful and necessary post. A fun thing to try sometime–sit in a crowded public place and watch the gestures whirling around you. Great source of fresh ones.
Lynette Benton says
I love your idea. On site research. I’ll try it! Thanks, Mary.