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Gesture Writing

29 May 2013

From The New York Times:

Five years ago, I walked into a third-floor art studio on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, climbed atop a wooden stage covered in stained padding and dropped my ratty yellow bathrobe. A panel of strangers asked me to pose, and then to freeze. I had never modeled for artists, and had no idea how I would feel standing naked as people I had just met stared at me. The idea held some bohemian appeal, but more urgently, I needed to supplement my income as a freelance writer while I worked on a novel.

I made the cut, and became a member of the Bay Area Models Guild. I had hoped this gig might earn me grocery money. I soon grew to love the freedom and strange relinquishment of status that comes from offering your nude presence to artists. What surprised me the most, though, was how profoundly it changed my writing life.

Soon I was sent out on bookings, mostly to introductory college drawing classes. The professor’s approach was always the same. I was asked to do many sets of active one- or two-minute poses.

“Find the gesture!” the instructor would shout, as the would-be artists sketched. “What is the essence of that pose? How does that pose feel to the model? The whole pose — quick, quick! No, not the arm or the leg. The line of the energy. What is that pose about? Step back and see it — really see it — whole.” And then, my timer beeped, I moved to a new pose and the students furiously flipped to a clean page.

. . . .

I was, during those early days of art modeling, struggling to find the life in my stylistically choppy novel. At home alone, I heard the drawing instructors’ voices.

Find the gesture. Don’t worry about the details. What is the essence of that pose?

I left my laptop at my desk and moved to the other side of the room to sit on the floor with my notebook. I chose a scene that involved a woman and a man sitting at a table with a priest, going over the results of a premarital counseling questionnaire.

I knew what happened in the scene, and what each character said, but when I’d tried to write it on my computer, the results were clunky. I kept trying to make the scene better by adding more about the woman’s thoughts and tinkering with the dialogue.

Step back. See it whole. Sitting on the floor with my notebook, I didn’t worry about words, about sentences. I thought about how the woman and her fiancé were sitting next to each other at the table, how the priest was wearing a high-necked orange sweater, how the woman’s fiancé assumed the priest didn’t know about “intimacy” with a woman . . . click. Yes, it was so much more interesting from the husband-to-be’s point of view!

Where’s the line of energy? What is the essence of what you see? Quick! I wrote all over the page, a line of complete dialogue followed by a place-holder phrase of exposition, a one-word reminder of the next action followed by an arrow to the margin where I’d scribbled a description of a key image. The page looked a mess. But I had captured the movement of the scene, not one line of dialogue connected clunkily to the next action. There was the whole. It made leaps. It had perspective. It had emphasis and connection. It had life.

Link to the rest at The New York Times and thanks to Patricia for the tip.

Writing Advice

11 Comments to “Gesture Writing”

  1. You want a really good example of capturing the broad strokes of a gesture or scene, go read the first forty pages (the super-long prologue) of Don Delillo’s Underworld. I don’t even want to spoil anything about it; go in completely cold. It’ll take your breath away. The sense of presence and atmosphere it conveys is incredible.

    (Reading the rest of the book is optional.)

    That prologue, though, man. Sometimes I wake up in a cold sweat wishing I could write something as good as the prologue to Underworld. It’s probably one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever read.

    • I just tried to do as you suggested. I made it through 3 pages and gave up. :D

      • To each his own :P DeLillo’s style isn’t for everybody. He’s not somebody who writes efficient, transparent prose that works as a conduit to the story — his prose is very much Writing, with a capital W. I call that “rich”. Some people find him insufferably purple.

      • Since Dan couldn’t even get through three pages, I just used Amazon’s ‘click to see inside’ button.

        I stopped reading after the ninety two word third sentence.

        I’m not against breaking the rules, but if you’ll excuse me I have to go douse myself with some Strunk & White.

        Omit Needless Words.

        Dan

        • At three sentences, you’re really not giving Delillo his due :\ That’s like watching the first ten seconds of a Malick film and going “Started on a fade from white. Pft. Amateur mistake. Turned it off immediately.”

  2. yes it is important to give your characters some “stage business” to make the scene feel real. Nice post, thanks.

  3. When I’m working with editing clients, I often encounter two distinct types of “gesture impaired” writers.

    The first is the one who writes fantastic dialogue, but it’s utterly devoid of stage business. The dialogue may be wonderful, but it reads like a Ping-Pong match, words whipping back and forth with no variation in pace and no gestures, like actors sitting on a bare stage reading a script at one another.

    I often advise this kind of writer to go spend an hour in a busy coffee shop, just observing. Does a person sip their coffee, or slurp, or gulp? What does this say about the person? Does a couple sit in near silence, looking at everything except each other? Does someone throw back their head and guffaw, or do they cover their mouth and titter? What about that young man with papers spread out all over the table, leaning forward earnestly, his tie askew, and constantly running his hands through disheveled hair, while the man in the thousand dollar business suit sits across from him, leaned far away from the table, his nose curled as if he just got a whiff of offal. What can you tell about them, without ever hearing a word of their dialogue?

    The other kind is the “over writer”, who puts in SO much gesture detail that it becomes overwhelming. This is the person who writes “He pulled the phone out of his pocket, slid his finger over the face to unlock it, then pressed the numbers with his finger to call his contact, waiting impatiently while the phone rang six times before the man picked up.” Whew! I tend to write comments in the margin like “Interesting that he pressed the numbers with his finger to make a call, since I usually press there with my nose to be beamed back to my home planet” (depends on the client–some get my snark with a sense of humor, some I have to play it straight). How much better would it be to simply write “He dug the phone out of his pocket, pacing the floor through interminable rings. Finally. “Hello? It’s done, but I’m gonna need a clean up crew. There’s blood everywhere.” Over gesturing is as bad as no gesturing.

    And the example given here points out something else I tend to harp on. Write the scene in the POV of the person with the most at stake.

    • Write the scene in the POV of the person with the most at stake.

      I’m writing that down, Kat. Excellent reminder. The story side of my brain knows it, but sometimes the other side forgets. :P

    • Patricia Sierra

      I feel like I’ve been to that coffee shop — thanks to your description.

    • In YA I stick to one POV only for the whole book, but that is good advice when doing otherwise.

      I tend not to do a lot of gesturing, especially facial expressions which I seem mostly unable to visualize despite observation. I tend toward sparse gesturing in part, I think, because it’s what I very much prefer to read. I won’t read a book that features too much elaborate gesturing. I find it impedes the pacing. I will tolerate too sparse of gesturing.

      All about the balance that works for you. I try to give the characters something to do while they’re talking. Blake Snyder called this the Pope in the Pool.

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