Gesture Tags And Body Language

There is an ongoing debate among writers about speech tags–those little “he said/she said” addendums to dialogue that let the reader know who is saying what.  There is a school of thought that simplicity is best, that most speech tags should be “[name of character] said” and that using words like bellowed, whispered, hissed, trumpeted, and guffawed is intrusive.

Fair enough.  I’m a big fan of simplicity.  However, I don’t want to get into that discussion, instead I want to address what I consider to be a parallel issue–gesture tags.

That’s not a phrase you’ll find in writer’s forums. But maybe we should.

Human beings do not communicate by words alone.  We use our whole bodies when we talk–some subtly, some overtly.  If you watch a video of a conversation without sound, or in a language that you don’t know, you can get a surprisingly good idea of the substance of the conversation from watching the bodies.

I recently had a beta reader of my work tell me that I describe people as frowning too much.  That got me thinking about how I describe what people are doing with their bodies when they talk, which I believe is every bit as important to writing dialogue as the words that they use.

My characters nod and shake their heads, point and waggle their fingers, frown and smile and lean forward, turn away, and look here and there when they talk.  I think that’s part of talking.  I also tend to use a lot of ellipses and dashes and sentence fragments.  I try to write dialogue as I’ve seen it, not as proper English usage would prefer it to be.

So my question to other writers is this: Do you feel that gesture tags in a manuscript can follow the same literary conventions as speech tags?  That is, if it’s okay to write “he said” every time that a characters says something, why would it not be okay to write “he frowned” every time that character frowns while he’s saying it? Should I look for new and different ways to describe nodding and pointing and shrugging shoulders?

How do you handle body language? When you write dialogue do you stick to just the words, or do you include the hand and facial movements that accompany conversation? If you write whole body dialogue, do you worry about reusing the same words too often?


About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle.
This entry was posted in Artists That I Admire, On Writing, Worms Of Heaven and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Gesture Tags And Body Language

  1. I use gestures and describe body language a lot to because I also think people communicate in other ways besides verbally. I am concerned about going overboard with facial expressions and even expressions in the eyes. Some may find it annoying so I try to tone it down. However, some scenes require those descriptions

  2. Sue says:

    The correct use of body language is a big issue. In sex scenes it’s called the unattached hand or something Body language is maybe more important than dialogue to convey a picture of a character. I try not to use dialogue tags. But make it apparent who is speaking often coinciding with gesture tags. I constantly check works used too frequently and I notice it when other writers do it.

  3. I use a lot of body language when writing dialogue. It keeps the characters active within the scene and shows their mood. Otherwise, it feels like they’re just standing there talking in the most rigid body gesture ever. At least that’s my thoughts on it. I add tics too. Rubbing a jeweled necklace or stroking the chin are two examples. As you said, much of human communications is body language, so I think authors should incorporate that to some extent to help give their characters depth.

  4. I LOVE writing gestures, and I definitely use certain ones too much. I tend to approach gestures the way I do dialogue tags, and words in general — if it shows up more than twice on one page, it’s probably too much. So my characters might demand something two times in a conversation, but three times is too much demanding, and I have to find a different word. And then some gestures you only want to have very sparsely — for example, Billy Bob could cross his arms and huff, but if he does it more than once in a single conversation, you end up thinking “Man, this guy huffs a LOT. What is he, a choo choo train?”

  5. I try to stick with the basic “he said” or “she asked” dialog tags. I try to express more than that, but when I write fast I have to go back and add body language in. An action can also help break up a long bit of dialog.

  6. kingmidget says:

    I think it’s critical to include what I call action and you refer to as gesture tags. I’m reading John Grisham’s latest and had this very thought as I was reading it earlier today. He writes entire pieces of dialogue with hardly any speech tags and no action, which makes for very vanilla dialogue. Somebody says something shocking and all that follows is another line of dialogue. No physical reactions are described. It seems remarkably hollow as a result. There’s no depth, no character at all. That said, what I struggle with when I write is trying to avoid repetitious actions from my characters. You can only say a character frowned so many times before it gets tiresome.

  7. Papi Z says:

    I seem to have a difficult time with both of these. Do you use them, or do you not use them, etc. I like a blurry watercolor when I am reading, give me the sense that the character is in a huff or frowning, and my imagination will run away with it. That is the hard part for me though, “showing” that, instead of telling it.

  8. Oloriel says:

    I use gesture tags, a lot, because that is how I percieve talking. I cannot imagine characters without them, I would imagine two cardboard cut-outs just spitting out words without moving. Gestures imply and are a translator of emotion, so I think they are important,unless the writer specifically wants to follow a form without them. I personaly disslike repetition, so will always dig for creative ways to depict the character frowning without actually writing that word.

  9. There’s an old term, ‘Talking Heads,’ which refers to two or more characters simply spitting out dialogue without any form of reaction of movement. My characters are always on the move and their faces are rarely static. That said, I have been criticised (kindly) for having them frown or mutter a little too much. As with dialogue, all gestures and expressions should be relevant or, as Michelle said, their tics and tuts will be spotted by the reader and become a constant distraction.
    I also try to mix things up a little by adding the tags before the speech (Donald nodded. “I like that idea.) or during verbal pauses(“You might be onto something there.” Meg bit into her lip. “But it scares me.”).

  10. Jade Reyner says:

    I always worry that I am overusing words when I am writing dialogue. My rule of thumb is to try to use the simplistic approach but after every few lines, throw in a gesture just to break up the monotony. I think that if you read a book which just says ‘he said, she said’ all of the time then it lacks creativity. It is important that we reflect body language as well because that is the way that we express majority of our conversation, not by the speech itself. I would keep using the gestures but I would try to shake them up a bit if you feel that they are being repetitive. Just my thoughts though Misha. 🙂

  11. sknicholls says:

    Attribution tags are used as part of communication and I have no problem with it. Being a psych nurse, body language was often more important than words spoken. I use them myself. I recently read, though, that readers don’t like verbs such as , laughed, smiled, frowned, because they are not actually a part of speech. They have been used for centuries and I don’t plan on deleting them because of a trend.

  12. Myas says:

    I take note of how may times I repeat words and try to find other ways to put it. If during what’s going on someone keeps frowning I wouldn’t keep repeating it. I think they’re ways during the conversation that can be indicted, like the tone, sarcasm, along those lines.

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