I love this picture of my mom. It’s 1975 and she’s holding my older sister, who is only a few days old. Mom’s at the old Denver airport and her father took this picture. She’s showing him what she thinks about having her picture taken.
It’s pretty easy to express language through gestures in everyday life, but what about writing?
Sometimes, it’s not so easy.
While in conversation, we roll our eyes, talk with our hands, or show certain expressions that are easily translated into how we feel (and sometimes, all in the same conversation)! I love that about language. Experts say that 55% of communication is nonverbal. Just drive in traffic at rush hour and you’ll see what I mean.
With books, however, readers expect most of the communication to come through the dialog exchanges between characters. Reading about a gesture is much different than the actual act of the gesture. If we have our characters roll their eyes, well, first your critique group will point out that your eyes are not dice, so they shouldn’t be rolling; and they’ll also tag all the other instances of eye-rolling in your book and tell you to cut most of them—it’s too many; it’s redundant. But isn’t that how people communicate? Like, all the time?!
I find it can be so difficult to succinctly describe gestures and body language in my writing, and I suspect a lot of authors do; so much so, they choose to avoid it when they can. When we grudgingly give into an argument, don’t we throw up our arms? Toss them in the air? Well, if you’re writing about zombies, then that could literally be the case, but readers might stop and ponder it too long. It’s probably not a huge blunder, but I’m guessing an editor would flag it.
Most of what I’m talking about, are everyday gestures that we often do without even thinking: shrugging; guffawing (what does that even look like?); scrunching our nose when we smell something foul; or showing our dislike for someone or something.
Even though these are common nonverbal cues, we are usually told to keeping them to a minimum in our writing. I think the key is to stay away from cliche descriptions of them, but can we still get our point across? Bottom line, gestures are visual cues and so as writers, it’s our job to convey these gestures in a succinct, clear, yet unique way.
How do you handle describing common gestures in your writing?