Beyond Shrugged Shoulders
By Michelle Barker
Anyone who has had me as their editor will know how I feel about generic gestures: the shrugged shoulders, the tilted heads, the rampant looking (oh, how we love to make our characters look at things). I mark all those moments in red, and in the margins say something like NO NO NO. Push harder. Find something better.
Truth: the reason I’m so tough on other people’s gestures in their manuscripts is because I struggle with this issue in my own work.
Gesture is one of those things that doesn’t get talked about enough in creative writing workshops or how-to books. I don’t know why. It’s a critical tool of character development and it’s a great way to enhance a scene and break up dialogue. As with most things, when it’s done well, you don’t notice it. When it isn’t, it sticks out like—well, like a shrugged shoulder.
Here’s the problem in a nutshell:
You want to create beats between lines of dialogue to round out a scene, but it’s hard to come up with fresh little filler moments. A body can only move in so many ways, and we’ve heard them all.
Or—you want to show your character reacting emotionally. So they sweat, or get stomach aches, or smile (they love to smile). I have to go through my manuscript at the end of every draft and pull out the smiles and laughter like proliferating dandelions.
Or—you want to bring your character to life and give them a “precious particle” that will make them memorable to the reader. So you think up a great gesture that makes your character unique, and you have them do it over and over until the reader finally says, Okay, I get it. He smokes his cigarettes right down to the end. Please move on.
Here are a few things that have helped me with this problem.
First, keep in mind: how someone does something can often say more to the reader than what they are actually doing. Unloading a dishwasher is one thing, and it’s not very interesting. Unloading it when you’re angry? That’s something else. If you want to have your character show emotion, why not have them do something in a particular way that portrays anger, or sadness, or relief?
Related to this is how we see things. John Gardner has some great exercises at the back of his book, The Art of Fiction that illustrate this point. Here’s one of them: “Describe a lake as seen by a young man who has just committed murder. Do not mention the murder.” Skip the sweating palms. Your beats to portray the emotions of guilt, or fear, or panic in this situation can be all about how this young man perceives the lake. My guess is he won’t be concentrating on the reflection of the fluffy clouds in the water. He’ll be focused on the murky depths, perhaps thinking about bodies and how long it takes them to eventually float to the surface.
What I’m getting at here is that a beat does not have to be a gesture. Nor does it have to involve racing hearts or churning guts. A beat can be an observation about the setting or about another character. It can be a memory or a thought.
If you do want to use gesture, here’s a trick I’ve found to be helpful: give your characters a task to perform while they’re talking. In fancy terms this is called triangulating the dialogue. On a practical level it points back to how we do things.
For example, try sending your characters off on a camping trip and make one of them light a campfire. We’ve all tried to light a campfire, right? The kindling might be a little damp, the wind is up: things go wrong. You get frustrated. Well, imagine getting frustrated while you are with a girl or guy you’re trying to impress. Or while you’re in the middle of an argument and you’re trying to keep your cool. How will your mood affect your actions? Once you start thinking about this, you begin to see the possibilities that open up.
Giving your character a particular gesture to make them unique is a good idea that has limited value. You can’t keep throwing it in because it becomes repetitive. More useful is to allow your character’s emotions to filter through into what they’re doing. This will keep your writing fresh and help you avoid the numerous clichés that sneak in with generic gesture.
As for rampant looking: characters do not have to look at things before they handle them. If a character picks up a knife, the reader will deduce that he has seen it first. Of course, sometimes having your character look at something is important. But usually it’s a step you can skip. That said, I am as guilty as anyone of having my characters look, gaze, stare, watch, glimpse, glance, and study things. It’s another one of those pernicious weeds that needs to be yanked out by the roots after every draft of a manuscript I write.
Why do we do this?
*looks at the delete button on her laptop*