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March 28, 2011 / Angela Sylvia

Clean Up the Page: Cluttering Dialogue with Gesture

copyright VladoOne thing my MFA mentor keeps reminding me this semester – stop telling the reader everything my character is doing. According to him, I explain expressions and gestures that are already obvious from the dialogue. When the characters talk I describe their facial expressions, hand movements, etc. I found (find) this a good way to get across the emotions of my characters, so a reader can understand what they are feeling when they speak. Still, after getting this advice I took out a good deal of the gesture, everything I saw as excessive. And he still asked for more.

At the same time I’ve been reading (at my mentor’s suggestion) Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. I reached chapter 9, conveniently titled “Gesture”. She uses examples from other novels to show when gesture is useful and tells the reader something new – but not before pointing out how much of the time, it’s unneeded:

Writers cover pages with familiar reactions (her heart pounded, he wrung his hands) to familiar situations. But unless what the character does is unexpected or unusual, or truly important to the narrative, the reader will assume that response without having to be told. (My emphasis)

It’s not that I wasn’t listening to my mentor’s advice, but advice takes on extra meaning when you hear it from more than one source. So I went back, and edited down my dialogue scenes even more, getting rid of the gunk so the conversation could flow.

Here’s a small example of what I did. First, the original:

“Where did you go? You said you were coming back here.”
“I got lost,” Cilla said. She looked at her feet.
Carlotta crossed her arms. “No, you lied. You know what Mr. Nestor told us, and after that man on the street… People want to hurt us.”

And now, after some cleaning:

“Where did you go? You said you were coming back here.”
“I got lost.”
“No,” Carlotta said, “you lied. You know what Mr. Nestor told us, and after that man on the street… People want to hurt us.”

Taking out the generic gestures, we get through this conversation more quickly, with fewer stops and bumps, and the plot can move on.

But what do you think? Does writing have a better sound when the author isn’t showing you every movement of the character, or does it paint a better picture do know each thing a character does?

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11 Comments

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  1. Erica / Mar 28 2011 1:11 pm

    Hi Angela! As someone who is studying communications and media, I find that some of are used to giving more detailed explanations because of online media: texting, blogs or Tweets and this includes having to incorporate emoticons for more emphasis :). When it somes to writing literature though, a reader may not need all of the “additives”. Readers are smarter than we think. I am learning this along the way as well and am thankful for your post. I do have a tendency to “tell” too much in m writing.

    The caveat here though is when the dialogue has an unusual expression like:
    e.g.“I apologize,” I said frowning. Why would the character frown? Whats behind this?

    I hope that made sense. Lol! Keep helping us with your tips and advice!

    • Angela Eastman / Mar 28 2011 1:21 pm

      Nope, that made sense, and that’s exactly the problem I’m talking about. I didn’t quote this much from her, but Francine Prose also goes on to say that you should really only describe gestures or expressions if it’s something that you wouldn’t expect from the dialogue. I believe the example she uses is if a man is told his business partner’s been murdered, and instead up being upset he smiles, because that tells us something the dialogue didn’t already say.

      I’m glad you like my posts! Most of these are just me figuring out where I’ve messed up or noticing my own shortcomings, but it’s nice to know it’s helpful to other people, too.

  2. Aesa / Mar 28 2011 1:22 pm

    When it comes to reading and writing, I usually follow the philosophy “less is more.” When you can remove actions or descriptions from a passage without affecting plot or clarity it probably wasn’t necessary. There are few things more annoying in a novel than an author having to blatantly explain a character’s emotions or motives; if something is written well a reader should be able to figure out these things for themselves.

    Then again, when it comes to writing I don’t believe in blanket-rules. These things depend on situation and style. One of my biggest issues with writing class is that it can kill originality and personality with technical “rights” and “wrongs.”

    As for your passage, I agree “Carlotta crossed her arms” is unnecessary. You can already sense her emotion from the dialogue. However “She looked at her feet” seems fine and doesn’t upset the rhythm of the conversation. (Although I feel Cilla looked at her feet. “I got lost.” flows a little smoother.) It lets the reader know she is embarrassed or ashamed with what she is saying and there is nothing else that indicates that. Then again, it’s difficult to give you an accurate opinion out of context. :)

    • Angela Eastman / Mar 28 2011 1:33 pm

      Less is more is the way to go, but that’s hard to say when you’re chopping out your own words! Especially if there’s a passage or phrase I’m very proud of, but then realize it’s likely very unnecessary.

      Yea, the passage I used was really out of context. There was some indication that Cilla was uncomfortable and nervous beforehand, as she stands outside the room and avoids coming in for a moment. Plus, looking at your feet is another one of those generic gestures that get overused in writing – not that they’re always bad, but I’m beginning to discover that it’s best to avoid them if possible.

  3. Erica / Mar 28 2011 2:10 pm

    Less is definitely more…and it can applied where it works. I have read novels that had straight forward dialogue and it worked for me as a reader. When I write, I tend to over explain I guess…nasty habit I picked up from Composition 101 in college. I mean its a great habit to have because desription is still key, but I find I can be too wordy…like now?

    • Angela Eastman / Mar 28 2011 9:27 pm

      But, at least if you have too many words you can always take them away. =)

  4. Brittany / Mar 31 2011 9:38 pm

    Can I recommend you read the short story Hills Like White Elephants…if you haven’t already?
    http://www.gummyprint.com/blog/archives/hills-like-white-elephants-complete-story/

    • Angela Eastman / Apr 1 2011 8:11 am

      Um… Yes! I did read it in college, for my lit and film class I think. He wastes no time in that one.

  5. Brendon Emert / Apr 19 2011 8:01 am

    Good post! I have a random question for you. How do you get your blog indexed by bing? I have a related web blog.

    • Angela Eastman / Apr 19 2011 8:32 am

      Thank you! And I haven’t actively tried to get my blog indexed (is that how you found it?) but I know that good use of keywords can give you better results in a search. Look up SEO (search engine optimization) techniques for that. =)

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