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?

What I’m Reading: Swords and Thrones

Didn’t have the time to post this last week. I’m going to try to regularly put this up on Monday, seems like I’ll be a lot more consistent with that than Saturday.

I started going through Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, another book that suggest for my MFA. This book specifically shows you how you can learn to write by reading other people’s work. Prose gives examples from other authors and helps us see how they might have constructed sentences and paragraphs, and figure out what choices they may have made with things like word choice. I’ve only gotten a few chapters in, but it’s very interesting.

I’ve also read the two volumes of Spice and Wolf I bought from the dying Borders near me. Again, I really enjoy this manga series. If I get the chance I want to take a look at the anime and light novels, too.

This is also for the MFA, but I’ve begun Robin McKinley’s YA fantasy, The Blue Sword. I’ve decided I want to look at this, and maybe the prequel story The Hero and the Crown to see what she does right or wrong when it comes to world building. So far, I think The Blue Sword pushes too much information on you right off the bat, and it makes chapter one a bit boring. It gets more interesting after that, though.

I haven’t started it yet, but I want to get to rereading A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin, since he’s FINALLY releasing the fifth novel in his fantasy series, A Dance with Dragons, in July. I love those books, so I am very, very excited that I’ll get to see what happens next.

What have you been reading? And what’s on your to-read list?