Writing Character Gestures

When we write scenes, we must liven them with the body
language and nonverbal cues we use when we interact emotionally. Those cues and
reactions can get stale awfully fast.

Writing Tip for Today: Here are some ways to avoid falling
into tropes and clichés when describing emotions:

No Sighs

Around my house, when we’re exasperated or frustrated, we
use loud and long sighs. This signals that others had best keep their distance.
In fiction, however, sighing characters can come off as maudlin or overly
dramatic or just cliched.

Several other body language staples are also overused: eye
rolls, frowns and clenched jaws see a lot of use in fictional scenes. It’s not
that these gestures are wrong. But by overusing them, readers may get the
signal that the writer was lazy. How much easier to have a pounding heart than
to write “a hollowness that urgently needed filling pulsed through her.” (From
Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing)

Be careful when you use common physical cues and gestures.
This includes: shrugging, eyes bugging out, stomachs lurching, trembling, hearts
pounding, throats catching, clearing throats, biting lips, clenching teeth or
fists, turning pale, and a host of other overused descriptors.

Whole Lotta Looking

In any story, there is bound to be a lot of looking,
staring, glaring and gazing. Especially for Romance writers, the ways
characters meet often includes a long gaze across a crowded room. To get beyond
a generic look, add bits that reflect the character’s attitudes, lifestyle and

For instance, instead of simply recording a look, maybe a cowboy
character “looks sideways like a bawling calf.” A wealthy woman might set her
sights on the lazy scullery maid. These are off the cuff examples, but if you
add a touch of the character’s plight or attitude, readers get so much more
immersed in a character.

Other looks that can become redundant include grins, glowers and glares. Instead of relying on looks like these, why not go to Deep POV where the character simply observes with the filters?

Readers will get the mood by interpreting the observation. Example: Instead of “He glared at her, so pathetic in that streetwalker getup,” simply observe: “Pathetic. Did she think that streetwalker getup was actually attractive?”

Cry Baby

Crying is often overused in scenes. As Nathan Bransford wisely observes, “Along with other generic gestures, crying is a crutch that can sink a novel.”  By allowing your characters to blubber at will, a writer dilutes the emotional impact of tears. A character who cries over everything will likely be perceived to be weak, petty and melodramatic.

Remember that your story’s tension must constantly rise all
the way to the climax. The same holds true for emotions. Save your crying for
the absolute worst moment, when your character can’t take it anymore. Nathan
Bransford explains. “Crying is one of our most extreme emotional responses as
humans, and so… it needs to be extreme in a novel too. If it’s used too much,
crying stops possessing any particular meaning.”

Ok, so we aren’t going to overuse gestures and physical cues described above. The key here is overuse. I think most of the generic words and phrases (the sighing and shrugging) should be limited to three in the entire novel.

Looking will be a little tougher, so try to incorporate the character’s personality when you describe this sense or go to Deep POV and leave out the filter altogether. When a character cries, make sure it’s at or near the pinnacle of the tension, to avoid a character who cries for no reason and dilutes tension.

What’s your pet peeve with these gestures? How do you work
around them? I’d love to hear your comments.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

12 comments on “Writing Character Gestures

  1. This is a pet peeve of mine, too. I did a blog a while back with some of my not-so-favorite mannerisms. One that crops up in romance novels is someone’s heart skipping a beat. I want to refer the character to the nearest cardiologist ASAP. Even nodding or shaking our head is, to me, lazy. Rarely do people really nod when they say yes, or shake their head for a “no.”

    • Margery,
      I agree that not using these tools can be challenging. But to grow as writers, we can rise to the challenge. I’ll bet your creative juices are already in motion.
      Keep Writing,

    • Jane,
      Goodness and on the front lines of a contest, you’d think writers would work a bit harder. I’ve never been a crier–much to my chagrin at failing that actress cry-on-demand talent. Bugs me when the waterworks start in a story.
      Thanks and Keep Writing!

    • (Raises hand). Yeah, I cry a lot. When I’m happy, mad, sad, frustrated, overjoyed, etc. I’m a weepy woman. My kids LOVE to watch movies with me b/c I almost always cry at something. They find it absolutely hilarious. LOL. But I also jump and yell in horror movies as well. Oh, and did I mention I’m also an actor and director. So maybe if your MC is an actor, they might cry a lot, but yeah, not most people. Some people do have BIG emotions, but I get your point and will scour my writing for overuse.

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  3. Thank you! The editing software I use has a repeated phrases report that may help with this. Or I could just use the “mass replace and undo” trick to count how many times I use the same words.

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