Friday, March 25, 2016

The Visual Side of Writing

Tell me if this sounds familiar: you’re sitting at the writing table, pounding out the voices in your head for a scene or an interaction sequence, and you get stuck trying to find the right way to convey a dialogue.  What do you do?  Well, if you’re like most writers, you try to imagine what your characters are saying and how they come across.  You might agonize over tone, or flip-flop on the right voice, or worry whether or not you’re using the right words.  And always, always, you ask the same questions over and over: Does the dialogue flow nicely?  Do the characters sound believable?  Is it too wordy, or not wordy enough?

But I bet most writers aren’t thinking about how their characters look.  Body posture, gestures, the whole slew of animated stances and positions we adopt in our daily lives...these tend to get lost in the shuffle of wordsmithing and verbal manipulation.  True, most probably grant that a basic grasp of scene visualization is essential to almost every writer, but few truly take the time to develop the character as a visual entity in its own right.  This is really unfortunate, since often what we see factors considerably into how tone and meaning shift in any given exchange.  When it comes to character creation and interactions, observation of real people is just as crucial to the writer as it is to the artist, and usually what sticks out the most stands squarely on the nonverbal side of the fence.  This is true especially for writers working in a visual medium, where squeezing every ounce of detail you can into a scene helps to minimize confusion and push your point across more clearly to the rest of the production cast.

While you can probably write a whole book on the contribution gestures and body movements make to communication (and in fact, many scholarly-types have done just that) you can summarize the most important aspects as they pertain to visual writing under just three categories:

Hand Gestures

Remember that we humans are an animated lot, always waving fingers and twirling wrists at nearly every moment in a conversation.  Gesticulation is so second nature to us that we usually take it for granted, but adding a touch of it during a character exchange can really work wonders.  Though it may be hard to capture, try to observe the way people move during a particularly heated exchange.  Mimicking that on the page can add just the right spice for a dramatic dialogue.

Body Posture

Arm folds, head tilts, and hands akimbo are common sights to anyone with a modicum of human attentiveness, but body posture can take less subtle and more intriguing forms.  I have a friend who has a habit of crossing her legs while standing whenever she's talking to someone.  When I eventually brought it to her attention, she admitted having no clue she was even doing it.  These little quirks and their tweaking can bring an surprising degree of personality to the character creation board.

The Expressive Face

Whether it’s the smile in a person’s eyes or the finicky way they dart back and forth when speaking, there’s good reason to pay attention to the whole face, and not just the mouth.  “Uh-huh” can go from an expression of disinterest to one of rapt attention, simply by adding a smile and an arch of the brows, thus changing the entire tone and dynamic of the conversation.  This information is especially crucial for animators, who have the responsibility of rendering character motions into a believable and lifelike facsimile.

This advice may have minimal impact on the dedicated novelist - or even, to an extent, the comic book writer - but anyone working in television, animation, and film will undoubtedly find their writing enriched by donning the eyes of an artist, if even for a moment.  Never forget that God is in the details, so capturing the full range of human expression on page will really bring your characters to life.

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