Oh, those flashing eyes!
The other day, I laughed when I read the recent tweet of a fellow writer: “There’s a lot of ‘flashing eyes’ in this draft. Need to fix.”
Our fictional characters certainly do flash their eyes. They also roll them, grind their jaws, blink, sneer, grimace, and smile in varying degrees from crookedly to unabashed. They shrug, cross their arms, tremble, and shake their heads like imaginary marionettes.
What are your go-to gestures or expressions when you write? I tend to overdo shrugs, blinks and nods.
Write beyond the the easy gesture
It’s important to make our character’s actions fresh. Every gesture doesn’t have to be symphonic, grand, or weird, but don’t settle for easy. Nothing is worse than a parade of hollow stage directions.
Why have your character take a long 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 smiled 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.” This commonplace, almost cliche gesture didn’t take much effort on the author’s part.
A more effective hand gesture might be: “His hands work through his pockets like hands moving underwater.” (A. Manette Ansay, Vinegar Hill)
Writer Mary Gaitskill’s characters don’t often smile, but when they do, she adds an indication of emotion that give the smile weight, as you can see in these examples from her short story collection Because They Wanted To:
His smile snagged and lapsed.
His smirk wobbled uncertainly.
Erin’s smile stuck, and she halted uncertainly.
His smile was watery, his lips felt weak–why was he smiling at all?
She smiled with tight, terse mystery.
Use sensory details
How our characters express themselves is important because actions and movements externalizes a person’s emotions. A tangible sensory detail is 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)
Consider the gestures in a wild scene from Disobedience by Jane Hamilton. A mother races to rescue her daughter, who was a male Civil War reenactor, from a group of men intent on finding out whether she was a girl or boy by stripping her:
She was running as hard as she could, hurling herself toward the crowd of men near the water. She wasn’t going to stop, wasn’t going to slow down, she was going to slice off their hands, their arms, cut through their hearts, whatever stood in her way, a regular Lizzie Borden, whack, whack, whack.
“What the fuck!”
That silver blade whirred, the air streamed near the men’s throats. Some of them jumped, parting the way, others stumbled backward. It was her pop eyes, the pitch of her whine, and her spastic propeller arm, as much as the knife, I think, that made them clear the path.
She doesn’t simply run fast, she hurls herself. She isn’t waving a knife, she has a spastic propeller arm. Readers can see, hear and feel the emotions.
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.
Linda K. Sienkiewicz is the author of the award-winning novel In the Context of Love, a story about one woman’s need to tell her truth without shame.
2017 New Apple Book Awards Official Selection
2016 Sarton Women’s Fiction Finalist
2016 Eric Hoffer Book Award Finalist
2016 Readers’ Favorite Finalist
2016 USA Book News Best Book Finalist
“…at once a love story, a cautionary tale, and an inspirational journey.” ~ Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of National Book Award Finalist, American Salvage, and critically acclaimed Once Upon a River,and Mothers, Tell Your Daughters
“With tenderness, but without blinking, Linda K. Sienkiewicz turns her eye on the predator-prey savannah of the young and still somehow hopeful.” ~ Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of the #1 NY Times Bestseller, Deep End of the Ocean
Publication announcement: Linda’s essay “My Horrible Celebrity Crush” is included in this new anthology from McFarland Books!
IDOL TALK: Woman Writers on the Teenage Infatuations that Changed Their Lives
In the midst of acne, social anxiety and training bras are the teen idols that make adolescent life a little more bearable. Whether their cutouts are plastered on bedroom walls or hidden behind locker doors, there is no denying the impact of these stars on young women. This collection of new essays explores with tenderness and humor the teen crushes of the past 50 years–from Elvis to John Lennon to Diana Ross–who have influenced the choices of women, romantically or otherwise, well into adulthood.
IDOL TALK will invite readers to a Ya-Ya Sisterhood-type pajama party as authors share “true confessions” of their own celebrity obsessions. Included are deeply personal musings about such stars as Elvis, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson and Davy Jones as well as some nontraditional idols including Bobby Orr, Baryshnikov and Raymond Burr and more.
Edited by Elizabeth Searle and Tamra Wilson
Foreword by Peter Noone
Format: softcover (7 x 10), 252 pages, 70 photos