The other day, I laughed when I read author Laura Wright’s tweet “There’s a lot of ‘flashing eyes’ in this draft. Need to fix.” I also recognized my own writing.
Our characters certainly do flash their eyes. They also roll their eyes, grind their jaws, blink, sneer, grimace, and smile in varying degrees from simpering to unabashed. They shrug, cross their arms, tremble, and shake their heads like imaginary marionettes. What’s your favorite gesture or expression? I tend to overdo shrugs, eye blinking and nodding.
It’s important to make our character’s actions fresh. Every expression doesn’t have to be symphonic, grand, or weird, but don’t settle for the easy gesture. Nothing is worse than a parade of hollow stage directions. Why have your character take a sip of beer if, instead, he can “splash beer on his mustache and put the can down without managing to take a drink” (Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage). Or, instead of smiling slyly, Mother might “set the edges of her top teeth against the swordtips of her bottom teeth and smile as if she could hiss” (Laura Kaschiske’s Suspicious River).
I remember reading this line in a novel: “Dad put his hand in his pants pocket and jingled his change.” To me, it’s a commonplace, almost cliche gesture that didn’t take much effort on the author’s part. I think a much more effective hand gesture is: “His hands work through his pockets like hands moving underwater.” (A. Manette Ansay, Vinegar Hill)
How our characters express themselves is important because what actions and movements a person makes externalizes their emotions. A tangible sensory detail is far better than an abstraction. For example, Glen’s angry frustration is clear when he “brought both his fists down hard on his thighs, pounding them half a dozen times before he lifted his hands and held them in front of him, open and extended,” (Dorothy Allison in Bastard out of Carolina).
Gestures are the most memorable things about the characters we love in good movies. They occupy the actor in a credible way. They are important considerations also for our fictional actors.