It's no one's place to say what constitutes as "bad" writing for anyone other than themselves. There are pieces of writing that can create harmful effects, but while an important subject, those are not my current focus.
As many editors who are strong readers' advocates are aware, it's important that authors are able to elevate the best of their voice and accessibly communicate their intentions. There is no one absolute correct way of doing that.
Often overlooked decisions fall in line with "gesture" even though gesture is, in many ways, central to the experience of a reader. In this case, "gesture" is when actions taken by a character in a narrative mean something that is important for a reader to understand and often has broader implications.
"Properly used gestures—plausible, in no way stagy or extreme, yet unique and specific—are like windows opening to let us see a person’s soul, [their] secret desires, fears or obsessions, the precise relations between that person and the self, between the self and the world, as well as the complicated emotional, social and historical...choreography that is instantly comprehensible" (Prose, 2006).
Note: I have omitted parts of this quotation that refer specifically to an example that Prose gives earlier in this chapter.
The method that Prose uses to define this term does not limit gesture to physical movements, but extends the term to word choice and word ordering. In this case, she's referring to decisions that amplify the believability of a story. It's important to acknowledge that these parameters can change depending on the expectations that the narrative is supposed to meet.
If a story is intended to be satirical, for example, an author might exaggerate gesture or draw out an acknowledgement of a gesture that might ordinarily be implied. While this is a common method, some authors prefer to take a different approach.
Fans of Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys have been delighted with Ghost Hunters Adventure Club and the Secret of the Grande Chateau partly because the author (Arin Hanson/"Dr. Cecil H. H. Mills") relied almost solely on manipulation of tone and dialogue to create comedic effect. "J.J. sidled up to the counter and produced a business card. This was his time to shine.
'How do you do,' he said. 'My name is J.J. Watts, and the less-handsome gentleman behind me is my brother and close confidant, Valentine Watts. Together we make up the Ghost Hunters Adventure Club, Harborville's foremost crime-fighting and mystery-solving duo.'
J.J. paused for a reaction. The young woman gave him and Valentine a cursory glance before returning to her book" (Hanson/Mills, 2020).
While it might still have been humorous to add in extended metaphors about the way in which J.J. moved up to the counter or the pose, even the look in his eye, when he delivered his elevator pitch, no additional gesure or exaggeration of gesture was necessary. "Sidled", the pause, and the length of the sentence in which the pause takes place offers enough context and imagery while effectively carrying the tone for those movements. There is ample information, in this excerpt, for a reader to determine the way that J.J. relates to the world, a little to himself, and to those around him, and that's all that they need.
Anything extra might have undercut the humor of this moment.
Like many other writing strategies, it is often advised that anything that isn't necessary to the intentions of the author or the needs of the reader ought to be cut. The reader doesn't always need to know, understand, and read into every limb's movement and every eye's blink. If we do, then the movements are rendered unrecognizable or, at worst, meaningless.
Another text that employs gesture beautifully is Fair Play by Tove Jansson. Originally published in Swedish in 1989, this story was inspired by the author's relationship with the artist Tuulikki Pietilä.
“They never asked, 'Were you able to work today?' Maybe they had, twenty or thirty years earlier, but they'd gradually learned not to. There are empty spaces that must be respected - those often long periods when a person can't see the pictures or find the words and needs to be left alone.
When Mari came in, Jonna was on a ladder building shelves in her front hall. Mari knew that when Jonna started putting up shelves she was approaching a period of work. Of course the hall would be far too narrow and cramped, but that was immaterial. The last time, it was shelves in the bedroom and the result had been a series of excellent woodcuts. She glanced into the bathroom as she passed, but Jonna had not yet put printing paper in to soak, not yet. Before Jonna could do her graphic work in peace, she always spent some time printing up sets of earlier, neglected works - a job that had been set aside so she could focus on new ideas. After all, a period of creative grace can be short” (2010).
There's an aspiration in the relationship between Mari and Jonna, to know someone so intimately that you know and understand what to say and what not to say. A reader will be familiar with those empty spaces, and there is gesture in that empty space between these characters simply in their mutual understanding.
Then, there is the following paragraph on Jonna's work which is only partly about her work. The description of Jonna's work builds upon Mari's understanding of Jonna, her needs, her adaptability, her knowledge of Jonna's relationship with her work. Jonna is someone who has a specific creative process and someone who does not discard past ideas even if she does not use them right away. She's someone who has to stop and take advantage of every creative idea that comes to mind before she loses it.
A reader does not have to be familiar with the task of putting printing paper in to soak. All we need to know is that Mari understands it, and it is the fact of Mari's understanding that pilots the emotion of this scene in which Jonna "needs to be left alone". This phrase presents a longing to be a part of the space in which Jonna is trying to "see the pictures" and "find the words", but acknowledges the boundaries of both Jonna and the "period of creative grace".
Gesture intends to circumvent movement. Movement is often a gesture, but is not always because movement does not always create a deeper meaning and understanding of the narrative, character, or context. Gesture, by nature, must.
This method can be overdone, but in order to make sure that doesn't happen, Prose (2006) advocates [respectful] people watching, observing the world and the telling gestures that people make unrehearsed. Know how to separate those telling gestures from movements that don't require elaboration.
Most writing strategies require some form of balance to do their best work. What matters most, as always, is finding what works.
Thank you so much to everyone who has given me feedback on Purposeful Prose thus far!
This post was inspired by the chapter, "Gesture", from Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. If you want a copy of this amazing book, you can purchase a copy here or from your local independent book store.
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Happy New Year, fellow bookworms!
As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
Hanson, A. (2020). Ghost Hunters Adventure Club and the Secret of the Grande Chateau. Permuted Press.
Jansson, T., & Teal, T. (2010). Fair play . New York Review Books.
Prose, F. (2006). Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (P.S.). Union Books.