May 15, 2012

Surely You Gesture

by Gary Fearon, Creative Director

I'm not Italian, but my friends say I might as well be. Not because of my love for linguini, but because whenever I speak, I'm an emphatic gesturer. Indeed, if my hands were tied behind my back I'd be rendered mute.

Gesturing, I've been validated to learn, is a form of communication unto itself. Psychologists say it's a physical manifestation of our thought process, perhaps more for our benefit than the person we're talking to, as evidenced by the fact that we often gesture while talking on the telephone.

If you haven't seen the 2011 video of two babies engaged in enthusiastic, wildly gesticulated babble, I invite you to enjoy this short excerpt.

Who knows what these twins are discussing, but odds are it has something to do with a missing sock.

Some people are natural gesturers, others not; much like how some people are natural smilers while others show no such emotion to strangers. We can use these observations about communication to advantage as we give our characters their personalities.  A gregarious, carefree hero is apt to be animated in his actions, while a shy wallflower is likely to behave in small, timid movements.

Gestures can easily be weaved into our dialogue, as in these examples:

"Don't ever do that again!" he exclaimed, slamming his hand on the table.

She gasped and grabbed onto the chair, steadying herself.

"What is wrong with this durn fool engine?" he said, rubbing the back of his neck.

"I was happy to help." She started to smile but caught herself.

Or we can tell a scene through a series of specific, individual actions:

Vernon shuffled into the kitchen, holding the envelope. Running his fingers around the edges, he contemplated whether he should open it before Lily was home too.  He glanced at his wrist watch, then the mantle clock, but neither one registered through the fog of the letter.

Actions can also be useful to suggest a character's reaction, without him/her saying a word, like pushing a plate of food away or slamming a door.

They are also a nice substitute for "said" adverbs like:

"That's what you think," she said defiantly.

Isn't the following much more interesting?:

She poured her glass of wine down the front of his shirt. "That's what you think."

Conveying behavior through gestures and other body language is an effective nonverbal way to infuse personality into our characters, with the added bonus of giving our audience a visual. If you were at all entertained by the babies in the kitchen, imagine how much more compelling your story will become using gestures, since you write dialogue more interesting than "Da da da da da da da."

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