Stock Gestures in Fiction
It’s something so common in fiction that no writer is immune from this. But what are stock gestures and how do you ensure you don’t overuse them?
Like real people, characters gesture when they act, speak or react. Writers use hand movements, facial expressions or slight body movements or ticks to add little flourishes to their descriptions and dialogue beats, which in turn, adds some depth to the characters when they’re speaking.
The only drawback is that this often results is the use of repetitive and familiar movements – otherwise known as ‘stock gestures.’ Just to give you an idea, these are the most common ones that can be found in just about every story:
She raised an eyebrow.
His face furrowed.
She tilted her head.
She wrinkled her nose.
He titled his head.
These are just some of them. They are so familiar that writers don’t think twice when they use them. They are so overused that they have, like words and phrases, become clichéd.
There’s no doubt that the use of gestures and signals helps the narrative, and the odd one or two isn’t going to affect the writing, but when they’re often repeated throughout a book, they have a negative effect on the writing and so the expressive impact of characterisation is lessened and the objective of enhancing the story doesn’t work. That’s why writers should find new and better ways for their characters to express themselves.
These stock gestures seem to be the ‘go to’ expressions when writing. Some writers use them for convenience. But there’s another good reason they affect the depth of the writing - they tell rather than show. ‘She raised an eyebrow’ is showing the reader much. It’s just telling them. And we’re all guilty of this. But writing is all about creativity and expression. This is especially true when the characters should all be different and they should all have very different emotional actions and reactions, rather then all of them sharing the same old gestures all the time.
Your characters are individual; no two are the same. That includes their gestures and personalities, so instead of ‘she raised an eyebrow’, show the reader, for example.
A dark colour shaded her eyes and her eyebrows twitched with curiosity.
While stock gestures they are not a bad thing – a few here and there is quite acceptable – writers should strive to make their writing as individual as they can. And even how gestures are shown is a mark of an author’s personal style of writing.
To avoid relying on them, learn how to spot them. After you’ve written the first draft and you approach the first read-through, pay particular attention to your characters and their gestures. Are they clichéd and convenient? Do they tell rather than show? Are you using the same gestures over and over? If so, change them and be more creative with how the characters express themselves.
Once you know what to look for, stock gestures will be easier to spot and much easier to avoid.