Symbolism of the Beach in Australian Literature

Sydney convict art beach

Iconic Examples of Australian Beach Stories

There are a great number of natural landscapes in Australia apart from beaches (rainforests, desert areas, snow-capped mountains) yet the beach has somehow become iconic.

In Australia, there is a cabal of writers who can be described as ‘Australian Coastal Gothic’.

  • Tim Winton
  • Robert Drewe
  • Peter Temple

These novels and short stories are often about men who retreat from inland areas to the coast. The setting is dark and brooding. The men have secrets. They are often in mourning over a woman’s death. They meet grotesque characters who almost personify their grief. Beaches are badlands.

What is distinctive about the Australian beach?

  • The term ‘beach’ in Australia has a wider meaning than its geographical qualities. 
  • Beaches exist all over the world but are an internationally iconic image of Australia. The beach is pervasive in Australian advertising, tourism and popular representation. The beach is presented as idyllic, almost nostalgic and beautiful.
  • Tourist photos of the Australian beach tend to focus on the natural aspects and remove amenities. The exception to this is The Gold Coast, in which the beach and urban cannot be disentangled. Images will include skyscrapers along the waterfront. 
  • Some beaches are far more hospitable than others. There is great variation. Water temperature varies a lot at any given time. Tasmanian beaches are more suitable for picnicking than swimming because the water is generally cold. Northern beaches near Darwin are unsafe because of crocodiles.
  • In Australia rural and urban areas tend to stand in opposition to one another (with preference for the rural). The beach falls into both camps — it is ‘natural landscape’ but it is also an extension of suburbia.
  • The beach is associated with leisure, hedonism pleasure, indolence. The beach is healing, a place of escape, a spiritual place.
  • When the beach is depicted as healing, there’s a big difference between characters who live at the beach and those who holiday there. Tourists don’t have to fit beach time around the ordinary aspects of their lives. The holiday is itself an escape.
  • But beach holidays often induce guilt. Characters feel guilty at what they leave behind. Guilt can provide the motivation to make big changes in a character’s ordinary, non-holiday life. The holiday itself triggers a character arc.
  • In fiction targeted at women, a holiday to the beach can make a female main character reassess who she is looking for as a romantic partner. She might be an uptight sort of character who loses her sexual inhibitions on holiday and is forever changed because of it. Beach holidays can let women reclaim parts of themselves that they’ve lost touch with (apart from sexual aspects). They can forget about societal expectations placed upon women in everyday life, giving them a feminist ideology.
  • In this way, the beach can act as a type of mirror. The natural beauty of the beach allows a woman to see the natural beauty in herself.
  • Beautiful places have been shown to be good for mental health. (We get the same effect in a forest.)
  • A beautiful setting allows for a binary to exist — beautiful versus non-beautiful. This is why the mythic natural beauty of the beach can symbolise heaven on earth. Horror films subvert this, juxtaposing a beautiful beach against death. The beautiful playground of a beach can become a kind of prison. Characters move from freedom to slavery.
  • The message of some horror beach films is that characters create their own fate by disturbing a pristine environment. They had no business being there. Nature (or supernature) shrugs them off.
  • Australia has no legend based on how we live as an urban coastal society, unlike the myth of the bush, which is a strong tradition. Yet for many modern Australians, the beach is a more familiar territory than ‘the bush’. 
  • British people tend to see natural landscape in terms of ‘countryside’ and ‘seaside’. At the ‘seaside’ you get resorts, relaxation and therapeutic results. But The Australian beach is a place for swimming and surfing. Australian beachgoers are not passive. Even when not swimming or surfing, Australians bring their beach furniture with them and decide where to sit. They are holidaymakers rather than beachgoers.
  • When compared to American beaches, Australian beaches feel ‘transient’. Australian holidaymakers are responsible for bringing everything — you can’t hire umbrellas and lounges like you can in Honolulu. Holiday resorts do exist in Australia (e.g. Byron Bay) but there is not much emphasis on those in literature. Australian beach culture is far more accepting of nature than in trying to impose human order onto it.
  • Bush mythologies tend to idealise individuality. You’re on your own out there. Survival in the bush is seen as a personal achievement. But the beach is all about pleasures shared with others. ‘Indecent’ pleasures challenge social norms in a community. Competitive sport flourishes.
  • The naturalness of the beach is part of the myth of the Australian beach. This is the beach of our imagination. In this imagined version of the beach, we’re the only person walking along pristine beaches of untouched sand.
  • In fact the beach is surveilled: The beach is under the eye of the lifeguard from the tower, and increasingly, the beach is also observed through technological means such as cameras installed to detect erosion.
  • Many Indigenous texts place more importance on fresh water than the beach. Yet there are still some important aspects of the beach that feature in the writing of Indigenous authors and in films that feature Indigenous characters.
  • Iconic Australian beaches: Surfers Paradise (Gold Coast, Queensland) and Bondi Beach (Sydney, New South Wales). These settings are also common in Australian stories.
  • Normally the word ‘badlands‘ conjures images of extensive tracts of heavily eroded, uncultivable land with little vegetation, for instance the barren plateau region of the western US (North and South Dakota and Nebraska). But the Australian beach can be used as a type of badlands.
  • In the 1960s the Beaumont children went missing. (Their mother recently died without ever knowing what happened to them.) They disappeared from Glenelg Beach near Adelaide, South Australia on 26 January 1966 (Australia Day)
  • Harold Holt went swimming in the sea and never returned. He was Australia’s prime minister. The fact that a prime minister can go missing like that is seen as a quintessentially Australian thing. We like to think this could never happen to the American president, whose body is protected, his every move monitored.
  • In the 1980s and 90s, infamous gay hate murders took place on Bondi beaches
  • Bra Boys is a movie about the Cronulla riots of 2005
  • Crime, assaults and kidnapped children continue to be plots in fictional texts with beach settings. 
  • The beach is often a horror setting e.g. The Long Weekend (1978) and Lost Things (2003). Sometimes the beauty of the beach juxtaposes against the horror that unfolds e.g. The Long Weekend (1978 movie), Lost Things (2003 movie). Like any good horror story, the setting (in this case the beach) is initially set up as an idyllic, beautiful place. Also true to the horror genre, these beaches are difficult to reach and isolated. The humans are plucked off from the herd. In a Love story, the beach can act as a mirror, showing the (female) main character the beauty in herself. In a horror story the beach can also act as a mirror, but this time it reflects the evil within the main character(s).
  • In either case, the beach has the power to reveal some sort of truth.
  • The beauty of the beach is sometimes cast as ‘tempting’ e.g. Two Hands (1999 film). Bondi Beach is depicted as a glittering ocean which entices Jimmy into the water, away from his tasks. 
  • The Australian beach is increasingly urban as the city and its suburbs encroach further onto the sand. 
  • Philip Drew, in his work The Coast Dwellers, believes that the Europeans brought their own understanding of space to Australia when they arrived in the late 19th century. Europeans journeyed here with a “conception of a closed centric world”. But this understanding that did not fit the geographical complexities of the country they found themselves in.
  • Even natural beach elements can be scary. Nature is unpredictable and we can’t control it (shark attacks, wild weather). 
  • The beach is considered a space of equality. Anyone can go there, whether rich or poor. No one owns the beach. Once at the beach, no one is judged on the norms of the rest of their lives — everyone is now just a person at the beach, perhaps stripped down without clothes as status symbols. Employment and wealth is discarded. However, in practice the classless beach isn’t real, sometimes made clear in fiction as well. In Puberty Blues Kathy Lette describes Green Hills beach as trendy while beaches at the sound end of Cronulla are family friendly (but not trendy).
  • Some texts objectify women on the sand. Surfing texts are very masculine. Some films objectify other kinds of bodies, including the bodies of men. 
  • Australian beach films are rarely financially or critically successful. (e.g. Newcastle) But still Australians keep trying to make beach movies and TV shows. 
  • The beach is neither marginal nor liminal. It allows the imaginative and the social to exist at once within the same landscape. This is called ‘Beachspace’. Liminal is all about the concepts of transition and shifting ambiguities, categorised by disorientation and a loss of belonging. In contrast, the beach can create a sense of belonging, or multiple belongings. 
  • Like high places, the beach can be used as a place to gain perspective, especially by going surfing. For surfers, waves can be a refuge and like driving, afford a sense of control. The main character of Breath by Tim Winton (2008) uses the surf in this way. He feels he can’t control death around him in his regular life.
  • Even though characters might try to use the beach as a safe space away from their ordinary lives, the beach isn’t always binary in that way. Floating in the shallows is similar to sitting in a bath, affording characters the space to think. Characters often have anagnorises in the water.

FURTHER READING

Header painting is a View of Sydney from the West side of the Cover painted in 1806 by a convict artist John Eyre. Some convicts were artists. Some of them were even convicted because of art — for forgery.

Literary Impressionism: The Basics

Claude Monet Impression Sunrise 1872

Literary impressionism centres on the following questions: Who am I and What is it all about? In impressionist literary works, themes are difficult to pin down because the reader is expected to bring a lot to the table. This is true of lyrical stories in general.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF LITERARY IMPRESSIONISM

Charles Baudelaire’s poetry inspired the symbolist movement in literature, which communicated through symbolist subjects. The goal of symbolism was to convey the essence of a subject rather than reproducing it.

Impressionism produced new forms in literature: the prose poem and the psychological sketch. Emphasis is on how things appear — on the sense of sight in particular.

The modern lyrical short story is not a genre in its own right, but a natural consequence of literary Impressionism. The best examples of Impressionism can be found in short stories. Because of their length, short stories are better able to ‘paint an Impressionist picture’, so the Impressionist bits are more obvious.

GENERAL FEATURES OF IMPRESSIONIST LITERARY WORKS

Characters and settings are suggested rather than defined.

Impressionist works are all about the transient nature of reality and the complexity of truth.

Better a half truth, beautifully whispered, than a whole solemnly shouted.

Katherine Mansfield

They share this in common with many historians today:

A few strokes capture the mood of the characters and the minute ‘objective’ details (which are actually subjective).

The personal impression of any experience is of greater importance to the Impressionist than any accurate description of reality.

Like an Impressionist painter she worked to convey the light and the shade, the overall impression or mood; details were altered, outlines blurred and places, people or occasions merged into a composite picture […] people were shaped and manipulated to fit the impression she wished to create.

Gillian Boddy of Katherine Mansfield, 1988

NARRATION

In Impressionism, a (homodiegetic) narrator tells a story which is fragmentary, seemingly objective, dramatic and indirectly suggestive.

Since Impressionist stories are all about indirectness, some kind of limiting point of view is best. The narrator has limited powers — everything is filtered via a focalising character. Two preferred limiting points of view (in third person) are narrated monologue and free indirect speech (also called free indirect discourse).

It is up to the reader to piece together fragments and come to our own conclusion about who this person is and what’s happening in the story. The character can’t see the full picture because they are stuck within the setting.

The narrative will emphasise the sensory and inner world of a character.

THE PARALLAX TECHNIQUE

Parallactic narration can be achieved when reality is described differently from multiple viewpoints. None of these narrators is omniscient — none of them has seen or understood the entire ‘story’.

Impressionist stories show us that characters (and therefore people) are conditioned by their environment and prone to distortion and misinterpretation. Unreliable, in other words. But this is not because they’re being deliberately deceitful. They are unreliable because they don’t quite understand themselves or their relationship to their world. This is how the character genuinely perceives reality. Remember the central questions of Impressionism: Who am I? How am I connected to my world?

DETAIL

Detail will look like ‘a flash perception of an outstanding aspect of the object’. In film, Terence Malick’s Tree of Life makes for an excellent visual example of how Impressionism looks in literature.

THE SUM WILL BE GREATER THAN THE PARTS

On their own, all of these details mean little. But they work together to create a symbol web, and only make sense once the reader has seen the whole story and stood back. Impressionist artwork works in the same way — stand too close and focus on any single brush stroke and the detail will seem random.

THE LANGUAGE OF IMPRESSIONISM

The prose is unabashedly purple. Early Impressionist writers were attempting to express everything to the last extremity and fix the last fine shade of mood and feeling. Subtlety is key.

But it wasn’t poetry. They were more interested in prose than in poetry. Prose was seen as a more inconclusive medium — the writer isn’t hemmed in by requirements of rhyme and metre. Prose is better to express feeling, reflections, comparisons.

But this prose was heavily influenced by poetry and is clearly aesthetically designed.

STORY STRUCTURE OF AN IMPRESSIONIST LITERARY WORK

Character and plot are enveloped in atmosphere. Every story function is conveyed indirectly.

Impressionist stories don’t have an elaborate finishing touch. This is to maintain across the entire story a narrator’s subjective, fragmentary impression of the world.

The main character really wants to know the ‘truth’ of human consciousness but if they realise anything long term, it’s that there is no ‘truth’ — only perceived fragments of highly ambiguous sensory stimuli.

At the Anagnorisis phase, the Impressionist main character is kept in the state where they want to learn the meaning of their experience but at the same time they’re unable to do so. Or they have a brief moment of clarity, but that is soon forgotten. We might call this anagnorisis illusory or phantasmagoric. An excellent example of this is “The Garden Party” by Katherine Mansfield, but also a much more recent short story “In-flight Entertainment” by Helen Simpson.

CHARACTERISATION

In Realism natural phenomena are generally described as they are commonly understood to be. But in Literary Impressionism the author simulates a sensory experience. This is presented with little additional information. Characters are not great noticers. They perceive their settings in momentary, fragmented pieces.

Because they know little about the bigger picture, they’re unreliable narrators. But not because they’re trying to deceive anyone — they really don’t know themselves very well. They’ve been shaped by their environment to the point where they can’t see that. They are unreliable because they are unable to sustain any realistic conception of themselves.

They tend to resort to fantasies and reality is distorted by illusion. Their false and incomplete data can contribute to a feeling of isolation in the world.

An Impressionist character generally faces a cognitive rather than a moral dilemma, and establishing the character’s background or history is, therefore, of little importance.

DETAILS

Although both Naturalist and Impressionist writers may pay a great deal of attention to details there is a difference in their use of it. Where the Naturalist tends to be comprehensive and complete, the Impressionist is highly selective. Where the Naturalist tends to give equal emphasis to a large number of details, Mansfield singles out the first detail that catches the narrator’s eye, the main impression on the particular occasion, and has the detail completely dominate the scene.

Julia van Gunsteren, Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism

Note that there’s a whole cluster of international art movements and definitions are often at great variance: impressionism, post-impressionism, realism, symbolism, modernism, symbolism, naturalism, imagism, dadaism, surrealism, expressionism, futurism and so on).

RESOURCES & FURTHER READING

  • Julia Van Gunsteren’s book Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism
  • Beverly Jean Gibbs “Impressionism as a Literary Movement”

Header painting is Claude Monet’s Impression Sunrise 1872 — the painting which led to the first insult which led to the reclamation of the word ‘impressionism’ as an art movement.

Onomatopoeia, Mimesis and Children’s Literature

goh-goh

Someone in a children’s writing forum crowdsourced recently: What does a waterfall sound like?

They were after an onomatopoeic sound. Some replied ‘trickle’. Others said ‘trickle’ is no good at all for a waterfall, as ‘trickle’ suggests a piddling amount of water.

I don’t know what they decided, but I thought of my years learning Japanese. Japanese most definitely has the perfect word to describe the sound of a waterfall: “goh-goh”.

That explains the wonderful and also one of the lesser-known, extremely challenging aspects of learning Japanese non-natively: Everyday Japanese language bursts forth with onomatopoeia, and not just onomatopoeia, either: mimesis in general.

ONOMATOPOEIA AND MIMESIS: THE DIFFERENCE



Onomatopoeia: A word which emulates a real-world sound. Woof, bang, crash, pop…

Mimesis: A more general term for language which emulates a feeling, texture or ambience. ‘Goo’ describes the feeling of viscous, slimy products.

ONOMATOPOEIA

Onomatopoeia is not a difficult concept for an English speaker. We use much of it, too, though we do tend to grow out of it a bit. By the time we’re adults, we’re using ‘proper’ words (eruditely, those with Latin and Greek roots) to describe the world around us. Use onomatopoeia as an adult and your speech will sound comical or childlike. While Japanese speakers also make a distinction between ‘formal’ and ‘conversational’ registers, conversational Japanese mimetic language as utilised by all ages of Japanese speakers does not carry the same comical, childlike baggage. Onomatopoeia can be used in a deliberately comical, over-the-top way, of course, but for Japanese natives, the huge range of onomatopoeia available to them does a fine job of describing any situation. They’d be silly to leave it to children and picture books, as we do.

Onomatopoeia plays various roles in language, apart from comic and playful value:

  1. Onomatopoeia allows the speaker a more vivid description of an environment.
  2. Increases the musicality of the language.
  3. Deepens the impression for the listener.
  4. The listener enjoys a visceral acoustic sensation.

In short, onomatopoeia helps listeners hear the content of story.

Onomatopoeic words can also develop into other parts of speech. Over time they become nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, even though they may start initially as interjections, or used on their own.

MIMESIS

Many words in any language probably started out as somehow mimetic, but native speakers simply hear sounds only as symbols. English is not particularly mimetic — to me — but perhaps that’s only because I speak it natively. Perhaps the sound of a book falling onto a desk really does sound like ‘book‘!

Japanese, on the other hand, has retained a more obviously mimetic lexicon. What does a Japanese speaker say when there’s an awkward silence? “Shiiiiin.” Shiiiin is the sound of silence. But of course, silence has no sound to emulate, which makes it ‘mimetic’ rather than ‘onomatopoeic’. We have the ability to express this same feeling in English, too, though it comes from pop culture. From cowboy movies we have the concept of “tumbleweed”, riffing on the pillow shot cutaway in which the audience sees a tumbleweed blowing across a prairie. The accompanying SFX is usually the sound of wind.

But on other occasions, I can’t think of an English equivalent.

What does a Japanese person say when waiting anxiously for something to happen? ‘Waku waku’. That one little mimetic word is all that’s needed. An English speaker in the same situation might say, “Well, this is exciting” or “I have butterflies in my stomach.”  A complete sentence, in other words. And it still doesn’t achieve the same specificity as the mimesis of waku-waku, which includes the feeling of delight.

From my Japanese English Dictionary of Everyday Mimesis and Onomatopoeia:

Waku-waku: To be excited, unable to relax, full of joy, expectation of happiness. It is used in reference to a purely psychological state, with few physical manifestations, such as quickened heartbeat, perspiring etc.

If you’re nervous without the joy of expectation you’d say Doki-doki (in emulation of a heartbeat), and if you’re impatient in an angry kind of way it’s Ira-ira.

In fact, Japanese has so mimetic, Japanese speakers themselves use five categories, compared to our two:

  • Giongo — actual sounds made by inanimate objects and nature. Non-linguistic sounds represented orthographically, in other words. The most general Japanese term for onomatopoeia.
  • Giseigo — A subset of giongo which includes only animal and human sounds
  • Gitaigo — The most general Japanese term for mimesis. Describes all kinds of conditions and states.
  • Giyougo — A subset of gitaigo which describes movements and motions
  • Gijougo — A subset of gitaigo which describes feelings

We do make our own linguistic distinctions between different kinds of onomatopoeia and mimesis in English, but the terminology is not so widely known outside linguistic circles.

  • Echomimesis — Though it literally means ‘sound imitation’,  I’ve seen it used more specifically  to refer to an array of letters which describes a sound but isn’t quite a word in its own right. BZZZuuuuuppppp or MWAHHHAHAHAHAaaaa are examples of echomimetic language. When making use of echomimesis in picture books, do readers a favour and make them pronounceable! (Unsayable echomimesis is an issue I have with Zita the Spacegirl.) Echomimesis is more about the transcription than a categorisation of the sound itself.
  • Sound symbolism —In linguistics, sound symbolism, phonesthesia or phonosemantics is the idea that vocal sounds or phonemes carry meaning in and of themselves. This is basically an overarching category, including mimesis in all its various forms. But it goes further than that, and looks into why ‘f’ sounds ‘harsh’ and ‘s’ sounds quiet and so on.
  • Ideophones — Words that evoke an idea in sound, often a vivid impression of certain sensations or sensory perceptions. This includes onomatopoeia, but also includes all of the Japanese categories listed above, and more, which exist in various other languages: movement, color, shape, or action. Ideophones are relatively uncommon in Western languages. If you’re wondering why we need this extra word on top of ‘onomatopoeia, see: Three Misconceptions about Ideophones.
  • Onomatope — A word formed by onomatopoeia or mimesis. (It’s backformed — the word ‘onomatopoeia’ came first, and I guess linguists got sick of saying ‘onomatopoeic words’ all the time, preferring a shortened version.
  • Lautmalerei  — As you can probably imagine, German linguists came up with their own awesome terminology: ‘painting with sound’. It translates into English as ‘onomatopoeia’.

MIMETIC LANGUAGE, PICTURE BOOKS AND LITERACY

One thing picturebooks do wonderfully well is onomatopoeia. Especially the ‘animal and human sounds’ category. (I do feel English writers tend to neglect all of those other options!)

In picture books designed for very young readers (which is most of them), it’s probably the onomatopoeia as much as anything which helps emergent speakers learn their native languages. Even in older, competent speakers, onomatopoeia in picture books fosters a love for word play, which presumably fosters a love for books.

For writers of junior fiction, let’s make full use of mimetic language. If English doesn’t have the word you’re after, perhaps take inspiration from some of the more mimetic ones. Then do some phono-semantic matching to make it fit into English.

Japanese is just one example of a highly mimetic language. Peoples with a close link to hunting are well-known for the ability to mimic sounds related to nature. But you might find resources on those a bit harder to find.

A Niger-Congo language known as Ewe is apparently as rich as Japanese in mimetic language, but it’s a lesser spoken tongue. Siwu is another, also of Ghana.

Shamanism is famous for mimesis, especially in musical performance. I doubt I could ever learn throat singing, practised by a number of different cultures.

You will find lists of onomatopoeia from the major world languages online. I still make use of my trusty old Japanese dictionary of mimesis even when coming up with words for an English language story.

Here’s a list of Sounds of Nature as expressed in Japanese.

There are many similar resources out there. One of the most comprehensive seems to be Written Sound, which functions as a dictionary. On the front page you’ll find a random selection of onomatopoeia from their database, but its search function is useful:

  • The search engine can be used in a few different ways. You can enter a non-onomatopoeia word such as ‘paper’ and you’ll get mimetic words related to the concept.
  • Or, if you can think of a mimetic word but it’s still not quite right, type that in. Say you’re looking for something like ‘bang’, but ‘bang’ is not quite right. The entry for ‘bang’ is linked to a wider category, which you’ll learn is ‘hard hit‘. Click on that link and you’ll be taken to a wide variety of words which all come under that category. The site is definitely English focused, but seems to include inspiration/mimesis from other languages as well. ‘Kwok’, ‘swah’ and ‘wakt’ sound foreign; ‘bam’, ‘whack’ and ‘pow’ sound English.
  • The neuroscientist creator of Written Sound ask for user input in a side panel on the right-hand side, in which you use sliders to describe a particular word. Even when used a few times for your own amusement, the act of thinking so closely about a sound trains the ear for appropriate onomatopoeia. This would be a useful exercise to do a few times with young writers in a classroom situation.
  • My search for waterfall returned nothing, so I shortened my query to ‘water‘ and was rewarded with a vast selection, some of which is perfect for a waterfall.

The creator of Written Sound has also noticed that Japanese is especially rich in onomatopoeia and mimesis. If you know a young word lover, or Japanophile, or manga creator, they may enjoy this book as a gift. (Unlike my comprehensive but dry dictionary, this one is illustrated.)

MIMETIC LANGUAGE IN BOOK APPS

I started to think hard about the role of onomatopoeia in junior fiction when my husband and I were making interactive picture book apps. There have always been a lot of misgivings about the value of book apps, as there always is about any new technology.

An important question for app developers: Where is the line between ‘book’ and ‘movie’? It’s a valid question. Some people say it comes down to whether or not the reader/viewer can control the pace of the story. The ‘page turns’, in other words (or equivalent thereof):

When reading [a paper book], the parent is better able to control the use of the book and pace of the story. […] Narration is the norm on apps – “When I use the iPad I don’t read with them, I let them use it on read-to-me mode.” This means the experience of reading a book is usually more shared with parents who spend time talking around the story more, doing all the silly voices, and getting involved in their children’s world.

Helen Dineen

Further to the general discussion of things that picturebooks apps can do that printed books can’t, an unintended flip side is that sound effects in an app may indeed discourage adult co-readers from making onomatopoeic sounds and doing the funny voices themselves.

This is not necessarily down to the inherent nature of the digital medium itself. It’s partly about how adult co-readers are choosing to use the book apps. Narration only replaces voice over if the adult turns the sound on.

On the other hand, there are absolutely decisions developers can make which encourage readers (adults and children alike) to continue making noises with their own mouths.

One thing I’m seeing in many picture book apps for young readers is an unfortunate substitution: Rather than presenting the adult co-reader with an opportunity to revel in onomatopoeic language, produced by the mouth, a lot of real-world mimesis is conveyed via recordings of actual real world sounds. For instance, rather than encouraging readers to work their own mouth muscles with a sound which mimics a motorcycle, a picture book app might simply provide a recording of a motorbike engine, which either autoplays after a page flip or is activated on touch.

This is not an argument against sound effects in picture book apps, or against picture book apps more generally.

Instead, I’d like to see developers encourage use of the mouth. The digital medium would be better used, perhaps, to skip the stock SFX in favour of narrator-produced onomatopoeia.

ANIMAL SOUNDS AROUND THE WORLD

  • Onomatopes for animal voices often sound the same in different languages.
  • Almost all ‘cock’ voices contain a velar stop (either [k] or [g], the voiced equivalent.
  • Sheep voices are remarkably, amazingly similar across languages. They all seem to start with a bilabial consonant [m] or [b] followed by a final front vowel.
  • Snakes = [z] (or in English, [s])
  • Cows = [m] + [u]
  • Cat voices start with [m] followed by [ja]
  • Bees make [z] sounds
  • Horses [h] and [i], which makes English a bit of an exception
  • Frogs have a wide variety of voices, but there’s also a wide variety of frogs. Cantonese: gwaa, gwaa. English: Ribbit. Limnodynastes dumerilii is a frog species native to Australia. We call it pobblebonk because it has a distinctive call that sounds like a banjo being plucked.

For more on that, see this paper.

Body Language Beats In Fiction

body language beat

Body language beats* in fiction are like stage directions. They serve various purposes in fiction:

  1. Varying the pace of the dialogue
  2. Tracking your character’s emotions
  3. Allowing the reader to keep track of who’s saying what, without over-reliance upon ‘he said/she said’.
*Don’t confuse this meaning of ‘beat’ with what theatre folk mean when they say beat — brief pauses in the action. Theatre peeps use the term ‘stage business’ when talking about these kind of beats.

There are other kinds of beats, for example brief snippets of interior monologue.

Body language beats can be handled badly.

  1. They are especially prevalent in early scenes of a novel.
  2. Maybe they don’t actually fulfil any of the purposes listed above.
  3. Body language beats which only serve function number three should be either upgraded or edited out.
  4. Authors tend to have favourite / go-to / default body language beats which need to be fixed in an edit. I’m inclined to overuse putting hands on someone’s shoulders to establish hierarchy.
  5. Authors can write so many beats that they end up slowing down the dialogue, rendering it hard to read. This can ruin otherwise excellent dialogue.
  6. Conversely, interesting body language beats can’t compensate for badly written dialogue.  Even when characters are mostly interior, giving little away in dialogue, the dialogue itself needs to be specific to that character. The less you give yourself to work with, the harder that is to do.
  7. When you give the readers every bit of detail you’re helping the reader to visualise the scene, but you can also limit their own imagination. Certain places (e.g. schools, hospitals) and certain actions (washing dishes, putting on shoes) are common to everyone and don’t need massive amounts of detail, and certainly not in the middle of dialogue scenes.

COMMON BODY LANGUAGE BEATS

The following body language beats can easily become problematic.

  • nodding
  • grinning
  • smiling (Surprisingly, Cormac McCarthy likes this one.)
  • shrugging
  • sighing
  • touching somebody’s face
  • holding up hands
  • waving hands
  • flinching
  • shaking one’s head
  • looking / glancing at the earlier / next  speaker
  • leaning forward/back
  • smile ‘plastered’ onto a face
  • grins ‘spreading’ across a face
  • mucking around with glasses, which annoys me as a glasses wearer when short-sighted characters (who wear glasses almost all the time) take them off for no reason when they would need them to keep seeing.
  • rubbing eyes
  • eye movements which read as if the eyeballs have a life of their own

I’m pretty confident Steig Larsson was a coffee drinker. Other authors have their character light a cigarette whenever they themselves take a break from the computer to light one up.

EXAMPLES OF BODY LANGUAGE BEATS IN THE WILD

Published body language beats that don’t work for me:

  • She scrunches up her lips like she’s considering it. (Because I associate ‘scrunch’ with paper, not lips)
  • I blow out a breath. (Because ‘a breath’ feels redundant)
  • My mouth is too dry. I swallow, trying to find some spit. (Because spit sounds too gross for the love story that this is)
  • Andrew’s eyebrows wrinkle together as if he can sense my sadness. (Because the eyebrows sound like they have a life of their own)
  • Nina waggles her eyebrows at me. (Same deal)
  • My mouth falls open, but I snap it closed before anyone notices. (This is why some people don’t like first person narrators. If you’re so surprised that you allow your mouth to fall open, how is it that you’re also sentient enough to realise you’re doing it in the first place?)
  • Their eyes bounce around the table, silently questioning each other. (Disembodied eyeballs in a horror comedy, when it’s not a horror comedy but a YA romantic sci-fi)

  • She mashed her lips into a tight line. (Mashed potato)
  • Nina purses her lips in a tight line and rolls her shoulders. (‘Pursing’ is a different action from forming a line. Rolling shoulders sounds like something you do at tennis cool down.)

Body language beats are especially problematic in first person narratives. The problem with first person — or even with close third person — is that the character / narrator can’t see into another character’s mind without ‘head hopping’. (I have a few issues with this old writing group chestnut, material for a different post.) So what do writers do to get around this limitation? They do as well all must in real life — their characters interpret others based solely on body language.

Irony makes everything more interesting, even body language beats. The same applies to adverbs in dialogue tags — it’s more likely to work if the detail you give is unexpected.

  • “I totally agree,” she said, shaking her head behind his back.
  • “Everyone should eat their greens,” he said, “because greens are good for gut flora.” He opened the bin and tipped the salad in.
  • “I am listening to you!” She kept her gaze on the guy outside.
BODY LANGUAGE BEATS IN COMEDY WRITING

Comedy gives writers more scope for originality and hyperbole. Like how it’s easy for horror to slip into comedy, it’s also easy for body language to sound unintentionally humorous. Comedy writers can make the most of this.

Squirrel Girl is a Marvel prequel by Shannon and Dean Hale:

  • Ana Sofia’s eyes widened even wider. (Intentional repetition, and also a bit meta because these characters have massive cartoonish eyes.)
  • She looked up. She was still frowning, but her eyes weren’t into it. (The eyes deliberately have a life of their own.)

Pax by Sara Pennypacker is a literary, non-funny MG. Despite writing for children, Pennypacker uses strong verbs not often used in spoken English:

  • The man had followed him outside. He yanked a thumb over his shoulder. (Pennypacker uses the verb ‘yank’ several times. Other authors say things like ‘hiking a thumb’ in a certain direction.)
  • At the corner, he risked a glance over his shoulder. (NOT: At the corner, he glanced over his shoulder.)
  • Vola dropped a handful of nails into an overall pocket and slide a hammer into her belt loop. Then she levelled him a gaze. (NOT: Then she gazed at him.)

HOW DO EXCELLENT WRITERS MANAGE BODY LANGUAGE BEATS?

It’s not easy to describe body language. But here’s an example from Annie Proulx:

“The money is good,” said Verna, giving the porch floor a shove that set the glider squeaking. Her apron was folded across her lap, her arms folded elbow over elbow with her hands on her shoulders, her ankles crossed against the coolness of the night. She wore the blue acrylic slippers Santee had given her for Mother’s Day.

“The Unclouded Day” by Annie Proulx

From the same story we have a different kind of woman altogether:

“Knock those beadies dead, Earl,” said the wife, drawing her fingernail through a drop of moisture that had fallen from her drink onto the chair arm.

Verna is not only cold, but she’s also in opposition to her husband. Even her apron, ‘folded across her lap’ seems against him.

Annie Proulx knows how to weave psychology into body language:

Snipe introduced himself after the song ended and gave them a broad, gland-hand smile like a proof of good intent. They didn’t care who he was, barely looked at him, and he darkened with embarrassment.

“Ah,” said Snipe, grinning like a set of teeth on a dish.

— “Heart Songs” by Annie Proulx

Here’s another technique utilised by Annie Proulx:

Walter said there was no point in trying to understand what it mean. “It can’t mean anything to us. It only meant something to the one who puts this negative in the tobacco can.”
Buck, wearing a scratchy wool sweater next to his skin, said something under his breath.

— “Negatives” by Annie Proulx

Notice how Proulx didn’t say: ‘Buck said something angrily under his breath’. She told us he was wearing a scratchy wool sweater next to his skin and we deduce that this is part of his anger. I consider this a form of pathetic fallacy—although it’s not the sweater that’s angry—indeed, it’s not even the reason for his anger, the feeling is transferred/attributed to something tangential—the sweater. I love this technique, as people in real life often don’t realise what’s really bothering them in the moment. This technique would be very well suited to a character who is not good at reading their own emotions.

In “Runaway“, Alice Munro describes bursting into tears:

She didn’t do anything to avoid Sylvia’s look. She drew her lips tight over her teeth and shut her eyes and rocked back and forth as if in a soundless howl, and then, shockingly, she did howl She howled and wept and gulped for air and tears ran down her cheeks and snot out of her nostrils and she began to look around wildly for something to wipe with.

— “Runaway” by Alice Munro

When writing body language beats it is so easy to fall into accidental comedy or hyperbole. Adelle Waldman avoids hyperbole but she really skirts close to it in her cringeworthy satire of a modern feminist man navigating the dating world.  This is a description of Nathaniel’s best male friend:

“Hannah, Hannah, Hannah,” Jason said. He was leaning on the roof’s railing with his arms extended on either side of his body and his ankles daintily crossed. When he smiled, his wide jawline formed a gratuitously large canvas for his fleshy lips. In his head’s narrower, more delicately constructed upper half, his eyelashes fluttered in a show of affability as disingenuous as the upturn of his mouth.

— The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman

Sometimes, top-notch writers — the writers described as having excellent prose at the line level — manage to avoid these more body language beats entirely. On the other hand, in real life people do nod and grin and shrug. We don’t have to make a seven course meal out of every beat. The best writers also use them. The trick is to make the boring beats totally invisible. Embellishing a body language beat is similar to embellishing ‘said’. If you’re gonna, it better be good.

The doctor looked directly at Meriel. This was not a disagreeable look—it was not aggressive or sly, it was not appraising. But it was not socially deferential, either.

[…]

She had started to cough, tried speaking through the cough, gave up, and hacked violently. The doctor got up and struck her expertly a couple of times on her bent back. The coughing ended with a groan. […] She coughed again, though not so desperately as before. Then she raised her head, breathed deeply and noisily for a few minutes, holding up her hands to stall the conversation, as if she would soon have something more, something important, to say. But all she did, finally, was laugh and say, “Now I’ve got a permanent blindfold. Cataracts. Doesn’t get me taken advantage of, in any debauch that I know about.”

— Alice Munro, “What Is Remembered”

How do excellent writers set out their dialogue scenes without confusing the reader about who’s speaking?

  1. They still use body language beats, but each one is original (you won’t have read it elsewhere)
  2. Body language beats are manipulated to either speed up the pace (fewer / zero beats) or to slow it down (longer beats).
  3. Each beat is meaningful. It tells us something about the character’s desire/motivation/interiority. Never just one purpose. Several, layered. Never just ‘to break up the page’.
  4. This means it’s probably surprising. A character nods while disagreeing, or folds their arms while agreeing.
  5. Some of the more experimental writers have a non-standard way of writing dialogue scenes, for instance with dashes and no speech marks. While this can read as irritating and pretentious (what, you too good for standard punctuation?) I’m sure these writers do it to avoid the pitfalls that come with the conventions. Not all genres, categories and publishers will accept non-standard dialogue layout, though.
  6. They may write with very little dialogue, and when there is dialogue, it lasts no longer than about three lines at a time. This means there’s no need to remind the reader who is saying what. But some types of books are dialogue heavy by their nature. It’s harder craft a book length worth of original body language beats in these stories.
  7. A tongue-in-cheek tip in episode three of the Print Run podcast: Write every scene like it’s a sex scene. This is because when writing sex scenes, it’s rare to fall into the usual traps. When you’re really focusing on the way bodies move in time and space, you’re giving body language the attention it deserves. Also, when you’re writing dialogue, in the first draft you’re mostly consumed with what your characters need to say, and don’t have the headspace to think of original body language beats at the same time. So unless they’re erased in a subsequent draft, unless they’re horrendous there’s a danger they’ll stay there. In fictional sex scenes, characters usually aren’t doing much talking to each other (a discussion for another day). #NotAllSexScenes — see also The Bad Sex In Fiction Award, because when beats in sex scenes go wrong, boy to they go wrong.

GUIDELINES FOR WRITING BODY LANGUAGE BEATS

Characters need a goal in each scene, and the other characters need to be the obstacles in their way, literally and figuratively. You already know human interactions have “push and pull,” so why not physicalize that? Let them actually shove or yank on each other. For physical interactions, I generally stick to a “one-touch” rule: Two characters should touch each other once, and only once, in each scene.

— Excerpt From: Matt Bird. “The Secrets of Story.”

  • Learn to recognise what your ‘go-to beats’ are, and in the revision process do a search. Replace with more original beats or at least mix them up a bit.
  • Also in revision, check that you haven’t put too many beats in the dialogue thereby making it hard to follow. Actors are advised not to ‘mug for a laugh’. That means adding physical humour when the script calls for the emphasis to remain on the verbal humour. We should follow the same guidelines when writing.
  • Likewise, you can’t have too much dialogue without some beats. In TV and movie world the guideline is no more than two pages of conversation without written directions breaking up dialogue. Novels work differently, and it would be a lot less than that.