Silk’s Post #47 — Since summertime is playtime, especially in the Pacific Northwest when we’re experiencing the sunniest season in years, it’s been really hard to stay glued to the keyboard, plugging away on rewrites. But that doesn’t mean taking a mental vacation.
In some professions, success demands that you take your work home with you. The writing profession demands that you take your work everywhere with you. Ideas, lessons and inspiration are around you every place, every day. All you have to do is pay attention and think like a writer.
Take last night. I’m lucky to live across the road from people who happen to give the best summer parties in the universe. Ours is a rural road, on an island we call Planet Saltspring in recognition of our iconoclastic, live-and-let-live vibe. So a late-night neighbourhood dance party under the stars, to the (loud) sounds of a live Cuban band, is not a problem. It’s an opportunity. Our party-giving friends are generous and smart. The neighbours are always invited.
Nursing a bad knee, I kept to the sidelines of the festively-lit party deck that’s built into a bluff in platformed layers. Mostly, I stood on a bench and moved my head and shoulders to the beat like a dashboard bobble doll, camera in one hand and refreshments in the other, watching the swing and sway of the packed dance floor.
Though the dancers all moved to the same beat, no two did it the same way, and I started paying more attention to their unique styles of movement. There were energetic shakers and sinuous swayers. Social dancers who had their own pas de deux going, and solo dancers who were jiving away in their own world. Real stylists who knew the Latin steps, and good ole stompers whose main achievement was keeping the beat.
It was mesmerizing.
Body language is as personal and unique as spoken or written language, and just as effective at telegraphing emotions. Relaxed people stroll. Angry people stomp. Stressed people scurry. People who love people watching and learn to observe body language can sit in a sidewalk cafe and read the personalities and states of mind of passers-by with an uncanny level of accuracy. Or at least conviction.
Sure, it’s hard to know whether your people-watching conclusions are accurate unless you follow them and find out what they’re really up to. (I wouldn’t recommend it, unless you’re an actual private eye instead of somebody writing about one.) However, from a writer’s point of view, it’s the theatre of the mind that counts – not reality.
In the hundreds of thousands of words I’ve read and listened to about the art of writing, much has been said about showing not telling. Use of specific gestures or general body language is a primary tool for conveying a character’s emotions and mood. When you write, “He slammed down the manuscript and leaned into Joe’s space, his hands pressed flat on the desk between them,” you really don’t need to additionally tell us that this guy is pretty pissed off and Joe might consider crawling under the desk for protection. Generally when writers are told to use action – such as physical movement – to tell the story and portray emotion, this is what’s meant.
But there’s another dimension to body language, and that’s character building. Every dancer dances differently, even when they’re dancing to the same beat.
The example above suggests to me a manuscript-slammer with some impulse control issues, someone who’s used to solving his problems through intimidation and direct action. Does Joe want to yell at this guy? Try to talk him down? Get under that desk? Depends, of course, on Joe’s own personality. If he’s an Alpha male, he might yell. If he sees himself as a conciliator, he might talk. If he’s violence-averse, like me, he’d dive for the floor. But the beauty is that the initial action sets up the reaction, and both demonstrate the nature of the two people who are interacting as well as move the plot point about the disputed manuscript forward.
But what if the character with the manuscript beef is someone else? Maybe it’s a young female intern who works under editor Joe, and has just discovered that Joe seems to be taking credit for her editorial comments? Would you just substitute her for the previous character and have her perform the same actions? Probably not. You’d have to give her her own unique dance to do, one that conveys who she is as well as how she feels about the manuscript. Likewise, Joe’s reaction would be different in this scenario and would tell us a lot about who he really is.
If this seems like Writing 101 advice, it is. We all know this stuff. But taking this deeper – to the level that great writers master invisibly when they create unforgettable characters that we feel like we’ve known all our lives – a character’s body language should be ever-present. Not just a device used to move a particular plot point forward in a colourful way.
For example, can you visualize Ichabod Crane, Washington Irving’s brilliantly limned protagonist in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”? Skinny, right? Timid and superstitious, but yet persistently self-serving in an obsequious kind of way. Here is how Irving introduces him to the reader:
“He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock, perched upon his spindle neck, to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.”
For me, it’s the use of active of body language that brings Ichabod Crane to life. His long snipe nose that looks like a weather-cock on his spindle neck animates his features and I can’t help but visualize Ichabod swinging his head from east to west, sussing out which way the wind might blow, as he sniffs for opportunities to exploit the largesse of the good burghers of Sleepy Hollow. Irving doesn’t just tell us he’s “lank”, but puts his ridiculous frame into motion for us, striding along with his clothes fluttering like a scarecrow. The body language shouts out who Ichabod Crane is. And we can never forget him. (Amazingly, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” isn’t even a novel – it’s a short story. Talk about having a huge and enduring impact with few words!)
Or think of the rich use of body language to define characters in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga. When I think of Gollum (or the dual personalities “Slinker” and “Stinker” as Sam Gamgee labels him), the most powerful characteristic that comes to mind is the way he moves – creeping, skulking, sneaking, slithering like a cross between a rat and a reptile.
In contrast is Strider, the alias of Aragorn Elessar, King of Men. Tolkien comes right out and tells us exactly who he is by giving him a name that’s an action in itself. He doesn’t walk, or skip, or run, or march. He strides forward, patient, wise, brave and full of undeterrable purpose, towards his rightful throne. As a character, he’s as irresistible as Gollum is repellant. He walks the walk.
I can’t close my post without sharing the wonderful literary aside about the Strider character, from Ansen Dibell (Nancy Ann Dibble’s penname) in her book Plot: Elements of Fiction Writing.
“J.R.R.Tolkien has confessed that about a third of the way through The Fellowship of the Ring, some ruffian named Strider confronted the hobbits in an inn, and Tolkien was in despair. He didn’t know who Strider was, where the book was going, or what to write next. Strider turns out to be no lesser person than Aragorn, the unrecognized and uncrowned king of all the forces of good, whose restoration to rule is, along with the destruction of the evil ring, the engine that moves the plot of the whole massive trilogy, The Lord of the Rings.”
I think Strider’s incredibly strong character, born of Tolkien’s compelling instinct to create a leading action figure and define him through body language, caused Strider to win his “audition” with the author for the role of future king, and transformed him into Aragorn.
And now, back to my own dance with the keyboard.