Friday, October 12, 2007

She Nodded

Characters tend to nod a lot in the first drafts of my stories. So I was delighted to hear Fred Shafer (scroll down) speak about gestures yesterday at the Off Campus Writers’ Workshop. His premise: gestures are useful not only in showing character and driving plot, but also -- during the story-drafting process -- in aiding a writer’s discovery of character and plot.

Shafer referenced Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer (Chapter 9) and echoed her advice to not use gestures merely to fill space on the page or as beats to alter the pace. But it’s no good to leave them out altogether, either.

Rather, writers must find the right gestures. They need to go beyond the first ones that come to mind -- the stereotypes, the cliches -- and be willing to discover the spontaneous / unusual / uncommon gestures that actually mean something ... that tilt the direction of an interaction (and maybe even the story) one way or another.

He acknowledged that it’s difficult for writers, alone at a keyboard, to think up gestures. So he suggested that writers be like actors, who observe people and then steal their gestures. He told of a director and actors in rehearsal, needing a meaningful gesture but not knowing what it should be. Eventually, the director called over a theater cleaning lady and offered her a sheet of paper. He got exactly the gesture he needed: before she took the paper, she wiped her hands on her uniform.

But what’s a writer to do without a notebook full of previously observed gestures, or someone upon whom to experiment? Use the imagination to experiment, Fred advised. Stay deeply within the scene and watch the characters. More importantly, watch them long enough -- often, what begins as a cliched gesture continues into something more telling. He offered examples from the short stories of Antonya Nelson to illustrate that staying with characters a moment longer leads to discovering unique details:

Abby grabbed Lucia’s hand and Lucia returned the squeeze.

Lucia leaned her head back, her throat moving with her last swallow.

“No,” she said, shaking her head, her hair loosening as she did so.

Edith put her face to his and kissed him, not on the mouth but around it, the way you might kiss an envelope containing a letter to your beloved

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