About a year ago I started offering manuscript critique services for aspiring authors. I give the kind of feedback that I want from my own critique partners – a heavy dose of tough love along with a touch of praise. The tough love is what makes all writers (including myself) improve. The touch of praise is there because creating is a difficult job, and even the act of putting words to the page deserves recognition.
What doesn’t deserve recognition is every footfall, head turn, eyebrow rise, nose scratch, and finger twitch of any character.
This is a hangup of mine, and I freely admit that I often go too far in the other direction and have one (or more) of my trusted critique partners let me know that my characters went from talking in the library to riding in a car without a transition. And no, that’s not acceptable.
What is acceptable?
Movement pertinent to plot and setting.
Is your character shading their eyes from the hot California sun? Bingo – that matters because you just found a way to get setting in there without saying, “I live in California.”
Is your character scratching their nose because they’re allergic to cats and that fact plays into the meet-cute you’ve got planned with the manager of the local Humane Society? Okay, cool.
This is the kind of movement that matters because it’s relevant. Too much character movement can kill a scene. So if you’ve got dialogue that reads like this:
“I don’t understand,” Samantha said, her eyebrows coming together.
It doesn’t work, in my opinion. The eyebrows coming together are to illustrate confusion. But the confusion is already there in the words she said. What’s happening here (and I was completely guilty of this when I started) is that you’re trying too hard to control the picture. You want your reader to see what you see, and that means you’re overwriting. The nose scratch shows confusion, or nervousness – but good dialogue will show that on its own. Let your reader fill in the body language.
A bigger issue with character movement is getting characters from one point to another.
For one thing, if it’s not all that important, throw in a scene break. If they’re in school for a scene, and then the next thing that happens relevant to the story is over dinner, scene break. You don’t need to fill in with meaningless stuff just to make time pass – your book isn’t delivered in real time. We assume stuff happened in between first period and dinner, but that it doesn’t matter to the story. You don’t narrate every time your character, eats, drinks, bathes, or goes to the bathroom. We assume they do those things.
Getting them from one place to another within a scene can be trickier. You don’t want a scene break every time the setting changes or you’ll have a bunch of two paragraph chapters. If you start with your character waking up and next thing is them eating breakfast, you don’t have to narrate that they went downstairs. We figure that out on our own.
Everything I say above is subjective. This is me speaking about what I prefer to read, and how I like to write. That being said, I do think that shaving down character movement gives your reader more freedom to visually interpret scenes in their own way, pulling them deeper into the book through that very interaction.
And that’s where you want them.