Monday, April 02, 2007

That's What You Said, But What Did You Mean?

Kathie Shoop

April 3, 2007

I’m working with a friend on injecting our writing with clarity and energy that'll make editors take quick notice—the kind of quick that makes their fingers do the talking within minutes of receiving the manuscript. A girl can dream, right?

My friend attended a workshop where The Nonverbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs and Body Language Cues, by David B. Givens, was introduced as a tool to infuse one’s writing with action and sizzle.

I know you’re familiar with nonverbal language—a writer's lifeblood. But this online dictionary is pretty in-depth and very easy to use. It might help you add another layer to a character's life or simply inspire you to change things up a bit.

The dictionary entries vary in length, but most contain the usage of a movement, physiological underpinnings, evolutionary details of the gesture, sometimes the psychological root, anthropological and cultural tidbits, and examples of how a cue may play out in modern life. This information can be helpful for a writer deciding how and when to use a particular action to communicate a particular thought, feeling, or desire.

One entry I explored was the Body Wall entry. In terms of nonverbal definitions, the Body Wall is “1…an expressive unit consisting of the head and trunk (without the face, shoulders, arms, hands, legs, or feet).”

Did you know, “As expressive cues, movements of the body wall are more fundamental as mood signs than are hand, arm, and leg motions?”

That jolted me. It brought to mind the way I convey nervousness or worry. I often focus on hand gestures (especially first draft)—maybe the fondling of a necklace, or running a hand through hair to convey a character’s uncertainty or concern. I don’t nearly as often isolate the head, neck, and trunk (minus the face, arms, and hands) to communicate an inner thought—one that the character might prefer to keep to herself.

I’ve only begun to explore this tool and already I’m finding ways to weave new gestures, cues and movements into my characters’ lives.

One thing’s for sure. I need to boot the fondling of pearls from my manuscripts. How about you? What gesture, cue or movement do you find creeping into every draft of your writing?


12 comments:

Annette said...

Great post, Kathie,

I recently took part in a discussion of this very topic with local writer, poet, and writing teacher Tim Esaias. He calls the overuse of these things Bobble-Headisms. As in nodding. He nodded. She nodded. They nodded. EVERYONE nodded. Get it? Bobble-heads.

I admit I'm guilty of the nodding thing, too. But my big one is overusing the eyebrows. He raised his eyebrows. Again and again. In the revisions I have to find some other way of showing expression. So I thank you for the link to this dictionary. I'm bookmarking it and I'm sure it will get frequent visits from me. She said as she nodded and raised one eyebrow.

Nancy said...

Any idea that infuses your work with more energy and sparkle sounds great. But over the years I've heard a lot about one pet peeve of many editors: The disembodied body part. "Her eyes fell to the table," is one howling example that comes to mind. Just be careful how you use the body language, because hands and legs and mouths don't move of their own accord. I think Stephen King is very amusing on this subject in ON WRITING.

Nancy again said...

PS.

I love Tim. Excellent writer. Excellent teacher.

Tory said...

Mine is rolling the eyes. I particularly tend to overuse it with teenage characters or characters that have the maturity of teenagers.

Thanks, Kathie, that's a great resource! As a body psychotherapist, I may particularly use it for trainings in the future.

Joyce said...

Interesting stuff! I'll have to keep some of this in mind.

Nancy, the disembodied body parts bugs me, too, especially in a published novel. I've seen it several times recently--you'd think someone would have caught it before it went to print. My personal fav is "His eyes roamed the room." What? They just jumped out of his head and took a walk?

kathie said...

Annette, Bobble-heads, very cute. Nodding is another one of my overused movements...it's such a good one, but like salt, in measured doses. I'm blanking now, but in many of the entries, it has other upper facial movements a person might make in place of eye-brow raises.

Nancy, I've heard that too. I don't think it's one of main issues, but I'm sure it happens more often than I think...

Tory,
glad it's a useful resource for you. Your area of focus, body psychotherapist sounds fascinating...I think you can add to the dictionary or ask questions--you might have info to offer!

kathie said...

Nancy, I meant to say "I don't think it's one of MY main issues..." not that it wasn't an issue in general!!!

Judy Schneider said...

Great post, Kathie! Thanks for the link. I've often referred to The Complete Idiot's Guide to Body Language, but this site seems to be more comprehensive.

When reading various people's manuscripts, I've noticed a lot of smiling among characters. It's probably an easy first-draft response. And to replace it with something comparable is a challenge.

kathie said...

Joyce, thanks for your comment. That's very common--the eyes roamed the room--and perhaps because there are so many cases of those phrases making it to publication writers think it's okay to use them. Everyone understands what the intention is. If not put on alert by critique partners, I'd bet my manuscripts would be swimming in eyeballs with all manner of independent lives and habits!

kathie said...

Joyce, thanks for your comment. That's very common--the eyes roamed the room--and perhaps because there are so many cases of those phrases making it to publication writers think it's okay to use them. Everyone understands what the intention is. If not put on alert by critique partners, I'd bet my manuscripts would be swimming in eyeballs with all manner of independent lives and habits!

Gina said...

My favorite is, "His eyes crept up her legs." No, it's not from a horror novel, although it's certainly a horrifying image. I don't remember where I read it, but the phrase stuck with me. In my own first drafts, people purse their lips way, way too often.

kathie said...

Gina, pursing lips? Sounds a little familiar...