Monday, June 17, 2013

Technical Topics-- Those Gestures

Somebody asked elsewhere

 -- paraphrasing here --

"How do we find ways to describe the exact motion of jerking a thumb in some direction or nodding in agreement?"

It's hard to find lovely unique ways to describe some of those, "He jerked his chin in the direction of the cyclops," or "He pointed to where the treasure was buried," situations.

But we can step back and consider gestures in a wider sense.

The words that describe the movement of body parts depend on:
Whose POV are you in?
What emotion and meaning do the physical movements represent?
What reaction are you trying to call from the reader?

(My first advice is to get hold of some Dorothy Dunnet and watch her characters do gestures and indicate things. She is just so good.)

Now, I have my WIP in front of me -- the Pax Manuscript.  Let me look at some of the head/face/hand movements and try to figure out why I did them the way I did.

"Something stronger?" Galba nodded toward the upper shelf where a bottle of twenty-year-old brandy inserted itself into a row of books.

Simple straightforward nod. You get to do five or six nods in a manuscript. Don't beat yourself up about it.
Not everything has to be fancy.

(Never use nods to tag dialog. You're just wasting one of those five or six nods you're entitled to.)


She tossed her last handful of crumbs to the birds, dusted her hands, and motioned to the errand boy who was heading out into the square with a package under his arm.

Now 'motioned' is about as weak as you can get in the way of description.
Does she raise her hand up over her head and wave it back and forth? Does she make a beckoning with just her fingers?
We don't know.

But we don't have to know.
We can be vague for three reasons.

(a) The purpose and outcome of the gesture are crystal clear and straightforward and have no hidden depths.
The gesture doesn't mean more than 'come here'.

(b) We have a picture of what's going on. We 'see' her dust her hands of breadcrumbs. With that strong visual laid down, we can be vague about the beckoning part that comes next.

(c) Doesn't matter what the reader imagines that gesture to look like. We don't minutely describe it because it is inherently not important.

All that said, we don't use weak words like 'motioned', 'gestured', 'moved', 'pointed', 'indicated' and so on but two or three times each in any mansucript.

Here's another:
He'd left France with various English coins, handy for bribing. He fumbled one loose. Turned out to be a shilling.

He held it up. "There's two of these waiting for you at Number Seven, if I catch up with her." He

closed his hand and got ready to tuck the coin back in his pocket.

The boy's eyes shifted. "Down there." He pointed east. "She give me halfcrown to say she gone t'other way."

He flipped the shilling to the boy. Collect two more tonight."

All these motions with the coin, with the boy's eyes, with his pointing, convey complex intention. But this is one of those counter-intuitive cases where the gestures are filled with information, but the intention doesn't live in the details of the motion.

We don't have to describe the exact gesture of tucking the coin away. The meaning of that gesture stands there shouting. It doesn't need the support of visuals. It doesn't need the internals to spell out what's going on.

Sometimes, a gesture needs support.
If we say merely,
She thumbed at the air behind her in the direction of Codyville.
"We go that way."

the motion sticks out like ... well ... a sore thumb, and we keep wanting to say something exciting and specific about the thumb motion itself.
But the motion of the thumb is not important.

It's the mood, intention, meaning and so on that's essential. So you put your creative energy into talking about mood, intention, internals and so on of the thumb stick rather than trying to describe the arc of the thumb with great beauty and vividness.

She clenched her teeth, making a sound midway between a dentist's drill and a pot boiling over. When she thumbed the air behind her in the direction of Codyville, it was if a particularly nasty ghost was following her and she had some hope of putting out its eye.
"We go that way," she said.

The second passage doesn't define the movement of the thumb any more clearly,
but we've added so much value to that motion in internals we don't have to add value to the simple physical act.

Thumbing toward something or jerking a chin in the direction of something you can maybe do twice in a manuscript.

After that your folks have to keep their chins and thumbs still and maybe just glance that way (2 times), indicate with a subtle lift of an eyebrow (once), roll their eyes toward (once), motion a languid hand in that direction (once), indicate with a hunch of the shoulder (once), nod toward (you have 5 or 6 nods, total), grimace at (once), twist to look at (once), notice over their left shoulder (once) ... well, you get the idea.

Another movement of hands:

She pressed her hands together in her lap, knuckle to knuckle, and waited.

Here, the motion and placement of the digits is important. We describe the exact location and placement of the hand because it is the visual that creates atmosphere for the reader. The visual itself becomes the comment.

I don't add internals. I pack information into the gesture.

Deliberately, she calmed her hands and set them together, loose in her lap. Her hands would whisper,

"I am not worried. I'm prepared to deal with you." It was an old saying of the Baldoni that lies are not words only. One deceives with every fingernail and toe.

And here we have both detailed motion and internals. Here the reader doesn't need to interpret the meaning of the hand motion and placement. I tell her what it means. Belt and suspenders, as it were.


  1. As always, this is both fascinating and very useful.

    I'm so glad to see mention of the Pax WIP again. I didn't want to push, but I'm longing for a new book from you. Any idea of the timescales?

    Please don't feel pressured at all - take it as genuine interest only.

  2. *g* No pressure. No pressure.

    It's supposed to come out in October, but I'm being unreliable. So ... 2013 is the target.

  3. Fantastic!! Looking forward to it, even if I have to wait until Christmas.

  4. Anonymous1:45 PM

    This is very helpful. Sometimes I read what I've written and could tear out my hair at all the 'he nodded' 'he pointed' 'he gestured' - and it's hard work to replace some or work around them. You are giving great ideas on how to do that.

  5. Wow! I've needed this one for a long time. Thanks, Jo ; )

  6. I sure do hope you find it useful. I always like to think something I say may touch off an idea in another writer's mind. Wonderful thought for me.

  7. Hi Zan Marie --

    We write gestures all the time. Tagging dialect is one way. But humans communicate so much with their bodies that it's be just plain wrong not to include this in the action of the story.

  8. Thanks, Jo! (Off to search and replace "nod," "point," "grimace,".... ) Gonna be a late night.

  9. Hi Grace!

    Yes! I do a search of those words and drag out hundreds! of these little dancy jerks and gestures. They're like mice in the wainscoting.

    It occurred to me while writing that that I HAVE wainscoting for about the first time. I suspect it has mice.

  10. Lovely post. It's been a while since I've read my Dunnetts. Might be time again. I'm off to do a search as well. I have a feeling there is too much nodding going on. Thank you.

  11. I'm not a novelist, but I love words and I greatly enjoy reading your technical posts. Just looking at your first example - you did use the good old basic "nodded". But, the brilliance of that passage has nothing to do with the gesture. It's all in the following phrase, "...where a bottle of twenty-year-old brandy inserted itself into a row of books." The whole passage jumps to life, not because of the nodding, but because you've now made the brandy bottle an active, living entity. You are a wordsmith ( a la Le Carre and Kingsolver) and I'm not sure that you can teach that.

    1. *g* Thank you so much. Oh my. How very flattering.

      I said just above that we can save the simple, old, strong words for moment of high passion and drama. We can make 'he smiled' incredibly powerful if we haven't frittered it away tagging dialog.

      We can also use the simple words when we have something else happening in that paragraph. That's one of the times we don't exhaustively describe the exact physicality of a gesture. We skimp on description of the gesture when something else is happening.

      This is a lot like cooking in a way, or flower arranging -- the combination of complexity and simplicity.

  12. Hi Ella --

    Yes indeed. We need to do a late-draft search for smiles, grins, nods, turns, glances -- so many trivial twiddly bits we want to tag our dialog with.

    If we save our smiles for when we really need them ... If we use only three or four in the manuscript ... they become incredibly strong and important. If we don't scatter the simple words about at random we can use that simplest, most basic, strongest word in a moment of high drama.

  13. Great post, Jo. It's all in the hands, they say--and so much more. You are right about overuse of some gesture descriptions--I've seen authors do this and I do get tired of the uplifted chin and the head jerks. And I know I overuse the "smile" gesture. I need to find ways to describe a smile not using that word (or grin).

    Love the cat pics, too. Are they yours?

  14. Hi Regan --

    The catpics are from LOLcats.

    We do overuse smiles and grins ... with me it's also shrugs. My characters just want to go through life shrugging at everyone. I can pick up a dozen in the final draft.

  15. This is the part of writing that gives me the most trouble and so this post is so very important to me! I see what and how I want to write it in my head, yet the words come out so mundane. Appropriate in some places, not enough in others. Thank you!

    1. Hi Nancy --

      Every time I set out to describe one of these body motions I'm there fuming and gnashing my teeth (how's that for body motions?) because the English language just doesn't have good words for what I want to write.

      That movement where you jerk your chin to indicate a direction or express an emotion -- We really need better words for that.

  16. I've just bookmarked this post for easy reference (and for when I need a chuckle, I'll come back to it to look at the cat pics). This is so helpful. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

    I'm also watching closely for Pax's story!


    1. Hi Sandy --

      That's what the internet is all about Writing advice and cats.

      I have it all figgered out. (jo slips her eyes about guilefully.) I use BOTH writing advice AND cats.