A while ago I took a close look at how writers craft body language beats in dialogue scenes. This is a difficult skill for various reasons:
- Many gestures are common and we do them over and over (e.g. She nodded, he smiled.)
- Writers tend to have our own go-to body language tics which need to be edited out or changed-up.
- Some readers (especially writerly types) tend to have pet-peeve gestures. I was once in a writing group with a guy who couldn’t stand ‘She held up her hands.’ Yet I see this in published work all the time. (Wish I didn’t notice it, and recall that guy complaining about it.)
- If you use too many words to describe a gesture it slows the pacing, which is not usually what you want in a dialogue scene.
- That said, gestures have a pacing function. Not only do they help readers visualise a scene, grounding characters in space, but gestures have to be the right length for the pacing. Short, choppy descriptions for an argument. Longer ones for a thoughtful reflective conversation, because we can’t keep saying over and over, “There was a long pause.”
- If you write gesture too well, it can unintentionally distract from the content of the dialogue.
- Most difficult, perhaps, is the fact that so much body language is difficult to put into words. In many of these cases, telling works better than showing e.g. ‘He looked like he wanted to interrupt’ rather than a blow-by-blow of his body language.
Some writers are more cinematic than others, writing almost as if describing a scene on screen. Cinematic writers will be making heavier use of gestures.
Although reading and making gestures comes naturally for most people, the study of gestures (kinesics) might bring a few things to into focus.
Questions To Ask About Gestures When Writing
- Are you writing in a low contact or high contact culture? (Would these people be touching each other as part of their communication style?)
- When characters touch others, what does this mean? (Can be multi-layered.)
- Is this in line with what we’d expect from their gender expression/social hierarchy/cultural background?
- When characters touch themselves (no, not like that), does it indicate some psychological state, or is it out of habit?
- Have you differentiated between different characters by giving them different body language? Some might use self-focused adaptors, others might use an object.
- Which of your characters have the most intense eye contact? Which of them avoid eye contact?
A comprehensive Internet resource is A Primer on Communication Studies, available free under a Creative Commons licence. Below I take a closer look at how writers convey gestures on the page.
Interesting Takeaways From Kinesics
Gestures are culturally variable although a few are universal.
The main types of gestures are manual (ie. involve the hands). Peter A. Andersen distinguished between three different types of gestures:
- ADAPTORS: touching behaviours and movements that indicate internal states typically related to arousal or anxiety. These can be self- or object- focused. Throat clearing would be a self-focused adaptor. Fiddling with a pen would be an object-focused adaptor.
- EMBLEMS: gestures that have a specific agreed-on meaning. In other words, emblems are the gestural equivalent of a (universal) symbol. However, emblems are not ‘universal’ because many are so culturally specific.
- ILLUSTRATORS: the most common type of gesture. Illustrates the verbal message they accompany. Using hands to indicate the size or shape of an object is a classic example of an illustrator gesture. Without verbal context they don’t usually have any meaning.
The study of touch is known as ‘haptics’.
It was English psychologist Michael Argyle who said that touch is a powerful social signal because it is associated with both sex and aggression.
Touching can be divided into self-focused and other-focused. Self-focused touch is not normally intentionally communicative and may reflect the person’s current state of mind (e.g. anxiety). This is useful to writers. But sometimes self-touch can merely be a habit.
Touch and SOCIAL Hierarchy
When it comes to other-focused touch, this relates heavily to hierarchy. Doctors touch patients, ministers touch parishioners, police officers touch the accused etc.
Touch and Gender
There are a lot of self-described pick up gurus on the internet making many generalisations about gender differences in touch and body language, ascribing far too much weight to simple actions and not nearly enough weight to being an all-round decent human being.
The main gender difference to note is itself based on another thing badly wrong with society: Women engage in more same-sex touch than men do, and this is probably because of homophobia. Women offer fuller hugs whereas men tend to shake hands or a back slap before hugging each other, often with quite forceful taps and back slaps.
Studies have noticed other differences between masculo- and femme- people. Masculine people do more ‘temple-support’ whereas femme people touch their hair more.
Some cultures are high-contact, others low-contact.
High contact cultures include: India, Turkey, France, Italy, Greece, Spain, the Middle East, Parts of Asia and Russia.
Low contact cultures include: Germany, Japan, England, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Estonia, Portugal, Northern Europe and Scandinavia.
These are generalisations of course, because single countries include diverse subcultures.
DESCRIBING GESTURES VIA DIALOGUE
Sometimes it’s far more effective to convey a facial expression or a gesture in the following ways. Notice how Munro only explains what is unexpected:
Jeffrey Toom was his name. “Without the B,” he said, as if the staleness of the joke wounded him.
He asked her if she had ever heard of a play called Euridyce. Pauline said, “You mean Anouilh’s?” and he was unflatteringly surprised.
“Sons of bitches,” said Jeffrey between his teeth, but with some satisfaction. “I’m not surprised.”The Children Stay by Alice Munro
“You want me to live in that tent?” Mary said, with an unfriendly cast to her expression.The Last Kind Words Saloon, Larry McMurtry