Thursday, September 10, 2009

Interpreting body language, etc.

Jami said about Theresa's great post:
Thank you for this post. My question is - how can a writer tell when they've put the "right amount" of information in? Since I know the whole story, it's hard for me to know if I'm including enough information for the reader to draw conclusions. I
want my story to have to make the reader think things through and not just spoon-feed it to them, but how do you find that happy medium?

I feel like I've been going back and forth on a teeter-totter with this issue in my WIP. Take for, example, facial expressions. In real life, you can't know why someone makes the facial expressions that they do, so I often try not to include an explanation. I'll state that the POV character notices someone's eyes narrowing, but I don't say "in anger" or "in confusion", etc. But feedback readers have told me to add more to that to explain why the other character is doing something. To me, that seems out-of-POV and spells things out too much. Is my approach right, wrong, or just confusing? :)

I know you're going to tell me that to have that deft balance of revealing/concealing, it takes a skill or talent or experience or something that I just don't have yet, but any pointers would be helpful. :)

Jami, I'd suggest thinking about how the narrator/POV character interprets this... esp. if the interpretation is wrong. Let's say she sees that he's turned away from the sight of the body, and she jumps to the conclusion that he's grossed out by the blood (a perfectly sensible interpretation). But in fact, though the POV character can't know it now, it's guilt that is making him turn away.

That is, she can interpret the body language or expression, but HOW she interprets it should tell more about her (she's always giving people the benefit of the doubt, or she's really proud that she's tough and doesn't have to turn away from the gore, maybe) than it tells about the "target" character.

The point of POV is to reveal what this viewpoint character sees, but more important, how this POV character feels and thinks about what she perceives. This way you get both-- the narration of the world around her, which the reader can make use of, and also the thought/feeling that reveals more about the narrator.

What do you think? It's a pretty subtle way of adding another layer of characterization... but also I think draws the reader in and makes the reader work a bit-- "Okay, that's one interpretation of what he's doing, but..."


Jami Gold said...


Yes, I do this a lot. Or, I should say, I try to. Whether or not I'm successful is an entirely different matter. :) I think I need to focus more on how my POV character feels and thinks about her interpretations. My critique partner has been helping a lot in this area, but it's good to hear the "big picture" side of things so I can understand why I'm doing what I'm doing. :)

My POV character is often wrong about her interpretations of others, specifically the hero. He's got tons of things going on that she doesn't know about that build into how he reacts to things. But it's hard to stay true to each of their characters and still reveal enough for the reader to "get it". :) She thinks she knows and understands a lot more than she really does, so her interpretation is often wrong.

And to address some of the comments in the other post about why I want to write this way - I want to write a story that people will want to read more than once because they'll get a deeper meaning out of it, see new interpretations, etc. each time they read it.

Thanks Alicia!
Jami G.

Edittorrent said...

Yeah, I think the ultimate achievement would be writing a book that's a "keeper," that people would want to re-read.

Hmm. Not a bestseller, but a keeper? Is that low or high expectations?

Jami Gold said...

Some keepers are best-sellers. At least, that's what I keep telling myself. :) This is one reason why I keep saying that my WIP is not formulaic genre.

I have plenty of other genre ideas in my head, but I'm sticking with this one (even though it may be impossible to sell) because the depth of it is what keeps me motivated through all these umpteen revision passes I'm going through on this learning curve of mine. I'm still learning something new, or a new interpretation for things, from it and I'm the author! I'm hoping that's a good sign. :)

Jami G.

Robin Lemke said...

Jami, one thing that I think might help, is that when it's the POV character doing something, but to share why can be overkill. So you can describe a breeze and have the POV character zip her coat.

But when you have other characters with guestures that you want to describe in order to show not tell, I think it's important to not just view it cinematically, but view it as the POV character views it.

Different people pick up all sorts of different things watching the same event and draw different conclusions. So, I noticed how well two chef's worked together on Top Chef and thought they must be really professional, but my husband saw that they were smiling a lot and figures they're sleeping together. (Me - trying not to judge his dirty mind. ;)

So, you're character might see narrowed eyes, then get nervous. Or she might just notice when someone turns his back on her. Or maybe she gets scared when she sees someone clench a fist, or get really quiet.

I hope that helps!

John said...

This is a great idea, something I don't think I've been doing. I've been told off ("you're jumping POV") if I say they turned away in disgust, which means i have to add a filler 'as if in disgust' which feels like it gets old pretty quick.

Something to keep in the back of my head anyway . . .

Jodi Ralston said...

Interesting question and post!

I have a character that does this, interprets body language (and other things) about the character, but he does it without softening his opinion with "I thought" or "maybe" or "perhaps" and the like. Originally, I had those softening words in, then I decided to try it without them. Turned out, taking a person's measure quickly and having strong opinions expressed as facts--which are wrong at times--became an important part of who he is.


Jami Gold said...

Mystery Robin, Thanks for the insight! :)

John & Jodi, Yes, I'll throw in some "as though", "apparently", "maybe", etc., sometimes. But sometimes I won't. I guess I see it that by default anything that is written by the narrator/POV character is their thoughts/interpretations. The reader will eventually catch on that she's wrong sometimes. :) But, yes, due to her background, she thinks she's very good at reading people. But she's in a new situation now and things aren't always what they seem.

I think as long as this is done deliberately (as with so many other things that Alicia and Teresa talk about), then this is a fair approach and not "cheating" or out-of-POV. :)

Jami G.

Edittorrent said...

JLR, yes, I think the clearer you've already made it that you are deep in her POV, the less you want those "apparently" words. Deep third POV is very like first-person. The reader should (by what's come before) already know this is "only her interpretation" and not revealed truth.

But I'd probably put in some "deep in her mind" cue, something in her voice, so that it feels like her interpretation--

He frowned with that whatmacallit expression-- befuddlement! That was what he frowned with.

And in a more distant POV, I'd go with some marker that this isn't reality, probably not "apparently" because that's a stiff word, but something. :)

Jodi Ralston said...

Alicia, how about in first person pov? Do you think it works better for that pov, or is it more off-putting? When I used the "perhaps" and such words, I used them to express doubt or uncertainty--then I just made my main character certain, even if he is wrong.


Edittorrent said...

In first-person, the reader will assume that whatever is the narrator's interpretation. I wouldn't use "apparently" or "no doubt" or "it seemed" unless the narrator herself wasn't really sure-- like she was suspicious that his smile was only "apparently" friendly.

The reader will go with this if you're deep in the POV, whether first or third.


Leona said...

Here, here! JG

That's what I want - a keeper. I want their to be layers about the character that the reader finds fascinating each time they read it. From nuances to bold characteristics, if the reader liked it well enough to keep, I will have succeeded.

I have many best sellers that I find KEEPERS :) Keep tugging that rope to success.

Julie Harrington said...

On a writer board I frequent, there was an exercise that went a long way in understanding how 2 character viewpoints would change and what details of a scene they'd notice based on their experiences and who they are. They gave you 2 characters -- one was a woman who found nature peaceful and relaxing. The other was a man who associated the outdoors with nothing but bad memories. The exercise put them both in a garden and asked you to write a brief conversational scene between them in that garden from each of their POVs to see how BEING those two different characters in that moment would change the flavor and tone of what was written as well as the details you'd pick and how you'd describe them.