Clean Up the Page: Cluttering Dialogue with Gesture

copyright VladoOne thing my MFA mentor keeps reminding me this semester – stop telling the reader everything my character is doing. According to him, I explain expressions and gestures that are already obvious from the dialogue. When the characters talk I describe their facial expressions, hand movements, etc. I found (find) this a good way to get across the emotions of my characters, so a reader can understand what they are feeling when they speak. Still, after getting this advice I took out a good deal of the gesture, everything I saw as excessive. And he still asked for more.

At the same time I’ve been reading (at my mentor’s suggestion) Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. I reached chapter 9, conveniently titled “Gesture”. She uses examples from other novels to show when gesture is useful and tells the reader something new – but not before pointing out how much of the time, it’s unneeded:

Writers cover pages with familiar reactions (her heart pounded, he wrung his hands) to familiar situations. But unless what the character does is unexpected or unusual, or truly important to the narrative, the reader will assume that response without having to be told. (My emphasis)

It’s not that I wasn’t listening to my mentor’s advice, but advice takes on extra meaning when you hear it from more than one source. So I went back, and edited down my dialogue scenes even more, getting rid of the gunk so the conversation could flow.

Here’s a small example of what I did. First, the original:

“Where did you go? You said you were coming back here.”
“I got lost,” Cilla said. She looked at her feet.
Carlotta crossed her arms. “No, you lied. You know what Mr. Nestor told us, and after that man on the street… People want to hurt us.”

And now, after some cleaning:

“Where did you go? You said you were coming back here.”
“I got lost.”
“No,” Carlotta said, “you lied. You know what Mr. Nestor told us, and after that man on the street… People want to hurt us.”

Taking out the generic gestures, we get through this conversation more quickly, with fewer stops and bumps, and the plot can move on.

But what do you think? Does writing have a better sound when the author isn’t showing you every movement of the character, or does it paint a better picture do know each thing a character does?