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Writing crutches: gestures

I’ll admit it: I’m addicted to gesture crutches. I use them over and over again throughout a book or chapter or sometimes even scene. It’s like I can’t stop, especially when I’m drafting!

What are gesture crutches, and why should we avoid them? As editor Michaela Hamilton said in an revision letter:

Don’t resort to overused gestures such as shrugged, nodded, sighed, shook his head. These are ok occasionally, but in general, seek more vivid gestures that tell more about a character, help set a mood, and create visual dimension in the scene.

Guilty as charged [author John Gilstrap writes]. My problem here is that the ones she notes are the only conversational gestures that I know of. I stipulate that I overuse them, but if anyone has other gesture arrows that I can add to the quiver, feel free to speak up.

my cousin and her friend collect pictures of themselves shruggingI, too, am guilty as charged. It’s tough to come up with original gestures, and sometimes distracting to the reader. (Think we’re alone in struggling with this? Check out this thread on Nathan Bransford’s forums.) While critique partners and editors are pretty much a must-have for the ultimate solution, I’ve found a couple ways to check myself on gestures.

Using character-specific, unique gestures
A couple weeks ago, I finished Brandilyn Collins’s Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors. Her very first secret, “Personalizing,” describes the process of finding a unique gesture for a character. Her example is of a rich, insecure woman who dislikes her hands, but wants to show off her ring, a symbol of her wealth. Can’t you just imagine how a woman like that would hold her hands? (It’s a conflicted gesture!)

Writing simple gestures more creatively
I also heartily recommend Margie Lawson‘s course on Empowering Character Emotions, which covers these repetitive gestures and how to write them “fresh” and “empowered,” when necessary—and how to tell when they’re not necessary at all. I also have her lecture packet on Writing Body Language and Dialogue Cues Like a Psychologist, which I’m sure builds upon those same principles (but I haven’t chiseled out the time to read it yet. Shame on me!). Margie teaches Empowering Character Emotions online in March (it was $30 last year) and the lecture packets are available year-round ($22—both are a great deal!) (and I only wish I were affiliated with her ;) ).

Come up with a stable of original expressions
This is also from Margie Lawson (with a little interpretation from me). I realized I have a lot of sarcasm in my MS (which I love), and there were only about five gestures of sarcasm (folded arms, rolling eyes, one raised eyebrow, scoffing, pursed lips, if I remember correctly). Since I already knew the emotion I was going for, I set out to write some original, creative gestures that conveyed sarcasm. Then I had a collection of gestures to draw on and even extrapolate from further. I also found The Bookshelf Muse’s Emotion Thesaurus super-helpful!

Pick the body part first
You could do any of these by picking a lesser-used body part. I once played this writers’ game where two members of the group had to act out a scene and the rest of us had to write about their emotions using assigned body parts. I had wrists and heels. It was awesome! One character stomped around hard enough to leave half-moons in the cement floor. Another offered apologetic wrists. Another had her arms fly open like windshield wipers. Will I ever use those? Maybe not. But that kind of vivid, imaginative imagery can help you create better, more appropriate images.

Monitoring your gestures
I’m proudest of this one because I came up with it myself (extrapolated from Margie’s EDITS system). When editing a scene, make a note of what body part/area is used in the line: hands, eyes/eyebrows, shoulders, lips/mouth, etc., in the margin. Then read the list aloud for the whole scene/chapter. This helped me pinpoint repetitive or too-similar gestures in close context as well as look at the gestures themselves. If I found I had ARMS too close to one another, I could look at those two gestures quickly and easily to see how similar they were.

What do you think? How do you keep yourself from repeating the same conversational gestures?

Do you find this post helpful or inspiring?
Heck yes I do! (5)

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7 Responses to Writing crutches: gestures

  1. Rachelle says:

    This is an excellent post! I’m revising right now and constantly worrying about character movement in dialogue. Thanks for the great tips.

  2. kbrebes says:

    Yes, this is a helpful post. Good things to think about and work on!

  3. Here we go.
    For Steam Palace (120K words):
    nodded: 81
    shrug(ged): 21
    sigh(ed): 45
    shook his/her head: 61

    Holy crap. I think you’re on to something!
    said: 298
    cried: 43
    asked: 54
    sniff(ed)/sniffled: 30
    trembled: 17
    shouted: 35
    heard: 43
    felt: 39
    yelled: 16
    snaked: 2
    drowning: 1
    sex-: 3 (hmm, what am I doing wrong?)
    lust(s): 7 (that’s better)

  4. Jordan says:

    The nods get me, too. But for most of these, I don’t know if that’s too terrible, really. That’s like, what, a sigh every 9 or so pages?

  5. henya says:

    Lots of staring and gazing. Gotta change some of it for more original traits.

    Great post. I can never get enough of such posts.

  6. ali says:

    This is FANTASTIC. Absolutely fabulous advice Jordan, thank you!

  7. Rebecca says:

    Thank you! I’m going to put this to use in my manuscripts!

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