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?