Thoughts on Gesture Writing, Scene Outlining, and the Essence of Things
On Facebook, someone shared a year-old opinion piece titled “Gesture Writing” from the New York Times that I really love and saved to my Pocket account immediately. In it, author Rachel Howard talks about her early days as an artist model for introductory drawing classes.
“Find the gesture!” the instructor would shout, as the would-be artists sketched. “What is the essence of that pose? How does that pose feel to the model? The whole pose — quick, quick! No, not the arm or the leg. The line of the energy. What is that pose about? Step back and see it — really see it — whole.”
In a gesture drawing, a whole arm that didn’t matter much might be just a smudgy slash, while a line that captured the twist of a spine might stand in sharp, carefully observed relief. The “gesture” was the line of organic connection within the body, the trace of kinetic cause-and-effect that made the figure a live human being rather than a corpse of stitched-together parts. If you “found the gesture,” you found life.
As she struggled to write her novel, the words of these instructors came to her again.
Find the gesture. Don’t worry about the details. What is the essence of that pose?
I left my laptop at my desk and moved to the other side of the room to sit on the floor with my notebook.
…Where’s the line of energy? What is the essence of what you see? Quick! I wrote all over the page, a line of complete dialogue followed by a place-holder phrase of exposition, a one-word reminder of the next action followed by an arrow to the margin where I’d scribbled a description of a key image. The page looked a mess. But I had captured the movement of the scene, not one line of dialogue connected clunkily to the next action. There was the whole. It made leaps. It had perspective. It had emphasis and connection. It had life.
Realizing that writing is a lot like drawing gives us a deeper approach. Because really, before we put a word or a mark on the page, both writers and artists must first step back and see. …to see deeply enough to capture the vibrancy of life on the page, a writer must move her consciousness out of information organizing mode into an intuitive way of seeing subtle organic connections and capturing them in bold strokes.
This essay reminded me of a post from the SFWA blog someone sent me years ago: the 10,000 words a day post. I know people have a ton of strong opinions about that post. I’ve found the part about scene outlining to be very useful, even if I still can’t write 10K per day.
…instead of trying to write the scene in the novel as I had been, I started scribbling a very short hand, truncated version the scene on the paper. I didn’t describe anything, I didn’t do transitions. I wasn’t writing, I was simply noting down what I would write when the time came. It took me about five minutes and three pages of notebook paper to untangle my seemingly unfixable scene, the one that had just eaten three days of my life before I tried this new approach. Better still, after I’d worked everything out in shorthand I was able to dive back into the scene and finish it in record time.
Looking back, it was so simple I feel stupid for not thinking of it sooner. If you want to write faster, the first step is to know what you’re writing before you write it. I’m not even talking about macro plot stuff, I mean working out the back and forth exchanges of an argument between characters, blocking out fights, writing up fast descriptions. … If the scene you’re sketching out starts to go the wrong way, you see it immediately, and all you have to do is cross out the parts that went sour and start again at the beginning. That’s it. No words lost, no time wasted. It was god damn beautiful.
I have some success with this method, and after reading the NYT piece I can now identify why there are times it works better than others. When I sketch the scene in ways that focus on the “gestures” and the essence of the scene. Is it emotion? Or exposition?
A thing I’m actively working on in my writing now is visual description of people, environment, movement. Trying to find that balance between giving my reader enough detail so it’s not a white room but not so much detail that I bog the reader down. Too often I read books and short fiction where the author, in trying to be as descriptive as possible, burdens me with so much visual detail that I can no longer see the thing for myself. It’s like the art students trying so hard to render the fingers exactly when they should focus on what in the body has the most life and get that down on paper.
I’d love to know what techniques you employ to get at the essence of a scene as you write.