Use movement and gesture in your fiction
An Emmy Award-winning cameraman and director turned award-winning novelist offers wise thoughts on keeping a fresh eye for small details
Published: June 15, 2011
I have spent more than 20 years behind the lens of a camera, framing the way people move in hundreds of films (and in the process, taking home an Emmy and two Gordon Parks awards for cinematography). Maybe that’s why I think movement and gesture are important in writing, because they tell us visually what is happening internally.
The French Impressionists were students of gesture, the author says. In this famous work by Renoir, three different love triangles can be seen, all told through body language, he says. (Credit: Pierre-Auguste Renoir [1841-1919], Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1881, oil on canvas, 51 1/4 x 69 1/8 inches. Acquired 1923, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.)
I’ve tried to apply that cameraman’s eye to my budding writing career, which began with my 2010 novel Drink the Tea, which won the Private Eye Writers of America’s Best First Private Eye Novel competition, and a starred review from Publishers Weekly. I suspect most people like Willis Gidney, my private eye, who also appears in my second novel, Steal the Show, due out this month.
When I write a scene for a novel, I try to see it, to visualize the important details. Where are the people at the start? How about at the end? What changed?
You can learn a lot watching how characters move in well-directed films. In the opening scene of Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, Sullivan explains his new project to his bosses. They hate it. The scene is all one take, and the way the actors move in the scene is motivated by their feelings and reactions to one another. The staging is poetry.
Alfred Hitchcock had a great sense of staging and movement. In fact, he deliberately confined his shooting space in films like Rear Window and Dial M for Murder—for him the films were exercises in staging and camerawork. Any fiction writer can learn a lot by watching them.
A person doesn’t always have to be in motion to give a sense of his or her interior space, of what they’re feeling. The French Impressionists were students of gesture. It’s important, because they found a visual way of telling about complex relationships. Take Renoir’s painting Luncheon of the Boating Party (above), in which the viewer can observe three different love triangles, all told through body language.
An eye for detail
My wife is an artist, and one of the perks is going to see great painting and sculpture with her. Since I work as a director of photography, we always have a lot to talk about. It’s also nice we work in different disciplines—we nearly always inform each other while we’re learning.
Just like a film director working with actors, I want, as a novelist, to work with my characters, explore their motivations, give them useful gestures or habits that inform the reader of their mental states. I’m having a bad day if I have a character shout, “I’m really angry at your infidelity right now!” But what if the same character picks up a cherished wedding present—a china vase—and smashes it without a word? Which behavior is more powerful for the reader?
Sometimes, very small actions can be revealing. I read that Rock Hudson had worn a groove down the middle of his thumbnail. A nervous habit, but why? The writer suggested that Hudson was conflicted, a gay man masquerading as straight in Hollywood. It must have been very stressful for Hudson, and it could explain the thumbnail.
That’s a splendid detail, because of its meaning. In fact, I use something like that in Steal the Show.
Add to your ‘warehouse’
Part of good writing is not just details, but the telling details. The ones with meaning. I can write five pages about a guy lighting a cigarette. I can describe the color of a door, the shape of a cloud, the vibration of a rolling bus. These are potentially meaningless details. I say potentially, because you, as the writer, can imbue them with meaning.
So what are the telling details? That’s what I try to visualize when writing a scene. Earlier, I described a person destroying a china vase. I may write a scene, put the vase in, then go to an earlier point of the manuscript and place the vase there, too, so the reader knows how important it is before it gets smashed. Writing is a kind of magic, isn’t it?
Sometimes, when I’m on the road filming a television show or commercial, I’ll see or hear something that I want to write down. I don’t know how I’ll use this scene, or that scrap of information, or a gesture or attitude someone showed. But writing it down makes it a part of my warehouse, the stuff I use when I write. I’ve heard expressions like, “You’ve got a handful of gimme and a mouthful of much obliged.” You can bet I wrote that down. One time someone I interviewed said he was involved in a project but not committed to it. I asked him, what’s the difference? “In a bacon and egg breakfast,” he said, “the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.” That made it into my notebook, and into Drink the Tea.
Years ago I went to a Mexican restaurant with two friends, one a successful young Mexican-American woman. She was not only the first in her family to complete high school, but the first to graduate college with a business degree. She was going places. So why was she so rude to an inoffensive Mexican-American waitress that she made her cry?
I thought about it, and decided the waitress was an unpleasant reminder of her own humble roots that she was anxious to cover. Maybe I was right, maybe not. What matters is, the incident made me think. What would make people be so rude to someone who’d done them no harm? When a character does something, he or she is trying to restore a balance to what is seen as an imbalance. The young woman who made the waitress cry had experienced something negative, and she was attempting to make her own world a positive place again.
I could be all wrong. Maybe the young woman stubbed her toe and that’s why she was so brusque. Maybe, but then I have no story, no jumping-off point. I later used this incident as an important clue for the readers of Drink the Tea.
So why did she do it? In my mind, she had a good reason. Maybe not one I’d think was sufficient for her to act this badly, but that’s not the point. It’s enough for her, that’s the point. And if the reader can understand it, they’ll go along.
I think understanding is the key to good characters, especially villains. I don’t see my bad guys as bad guys. No, just as Lee Marvin saw his characters, the bad guys are really just ordinary guys doing what they have to do to make it to the end of the day.
Macbeth is an example. Here we have a man so obsessed with power that he is willing to kill, lie, risk losing his sanity. Of course, Shakespeare lets us in on every important aspect of Macbeth’s thoughts, what brings him to these points. It is exactly because we can track Macbeth’s obsession that the play is so powerful. If Macbeth acts seemingly without reason, what we watch may be interesting, for a while. Eventually, we’ll get bored. So he kills Banquo. So what?
By having his protagonist be a murdering obsessive, Shakespeare flips our notions of good vs. bad. Macbeth has murdered. Once he’s caught, the show’s over. So Shakespeare must sustain the conflict. The forces of law and order are, for Macbeth, the forces of antagonism. Who’s the bad guy in Macbeth?
In Billy Wilder’s film Double Indemnity, the two main characters, a man and a woman, fall in love and conspire to kill the woman’s husband for the insurance money. The lead insurance investigator—who is also the protagonists’ best friend—becomes an antagonist in this scenario. In one scene, the man and woman believe they’ve committed a near-perfect murder, and have only to escape. They run to their car, get in, and start the engine.
But the engine won’t start. In silence they look at each other, and for the audience it sinks in. Get out of there, we want to shout, get the hell out.
I met Billy Wilder in 1980 and had a chance to ask him how he got the audience to identify so closely with these protagonists. His answer was that the script goes to a lot of trouble to make it clear to the audience why the insurance man is committing murder.
In other words, if you can understand what motivates a person, and it makes sense to that fictional character, then it’ll make sense to the reader.
I guess the point is to write characters interesting enough that readers want to hang out with them. Do that and you can do almost anything.
In addition to being an Emmy Award-winning cameraman and director, Thomas Kaufman is a writer whose debut novel, Drink the Tea, won the Private Eye Writers of America Best First Private Eye Novel award. He has contributed to three Academy Award-nominated films and shot hundreds of documentary and commercial films. Web: thomaskaufman.com.||