Tuesday, October 12

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, October 12, 2010 22 comments
One surprisingly helpful class from my undergrad days was a theatre course I took called "Basic Movement." In it, we learned some of the tools of the trade of acting--stances, carriage, gestures, playing to the audience, and of course, choreographed violence.

An ongoing assignment throughout the semester was keeping a "movement journal," in which we recorded observations about how certain body types move, motions unique to certain activities, and how people express emotion through movement. The goal of all this analysis was to build up our own repertoires of motion, so that we could embody various roles.

I've at times joked here about "stalking" students who remind me of my characters. These motion studies are particularly what I try to do. Once I've found the right body type, I've got the perfect model from which to get the data I need. I observe his stride--smooth, bouncy, swaggering, trudging? What's his usual posture? Is he apt to smile at strangers, or have a more closed expression? How does he hold objects? Ham-fisted? Gently by his fingertips? Loose and relaxed? Precise and uptight?

Emotional exchanges go on all the time on the college campus where I work. Because of that movement class, I now watch for the postures and gestures that make up the physical expression of those emotions. You don't even need to be in eavesdropping range to discern the kind of emotions people are expressing. Their bodies shout them.

A particularly powerful lesson from that class was our focus on the body rather than the face as an expressive vehicle. We had to wear dance unitards to every class, and did most of our in-class exercises and performances wearing masks. In many classes we did charades-like exercises: a pair would act certain emotions toward one another without speaking and in masks, and our classmates would have to guess what we were expressing. Those who'd put in the time researching for their journals usually won big time.

If you struggle with "talking head" dialogue, I recommend spending some time people watching and gathering data on how they move. Watch not only faces, but necks, shoulders, spines, hands, legs and feet. An acting class can be surprisingly horizon broadening, too.

Any of you also have some theatre training? How might a "movement journal" help your writing?


  1. That is awesome advice! I never really thought about watching how people moved, I generally just look for how they talk, or the inflections in their voice, or their style, when I people watch. I'm definitely going to give this a try though.

  2. I am usually frustrated by my lack of variations in the ways I describe my characters' actions. This sounds like a great exercise. Thanks.

  3. Oh, great idea, Laurel! I am definitely going to start paying more attention to - and recording - people's movements. :-)

  4. A movement journal is an amazing idea! Like Yat-Yee, I'm often at a loss to come up with variations in movement and end up repeating gestures ad nauseam rather than resort to talking heads.

  5. This is really interesting! You're right, there is so much to think about concerning our body movements, and each person has their own habits, so it's important to think about when creating characters.

    I took a few theatre/acting classes in college, and one of the most relevant pieces of advice I was given is to always know your objective in each scene. In acting, it helped to know my role better. In writing, knowing the objective can help determine if we really need this particular scene, or if it's just filler.

  6. I've always considered writing and acting sort of as "cousins". I love acting also, and there's so much you can learn from writing that can help improve your acting - and there's so much from acting that can help improve your writing.

    The "movement journal" is a great idea. I also love watching movies to see how the actors respond to certain situations through their body movement and expressions.

    Great post!


  7. Thank you so much. You always write the most wonderful posts with very dead on advice.

    I personally depend too much on facial expressions to convey emotions, and there can only be so many "smiles" before the writing starts to sound ridiculous. I will definitely try to observe people on campus more, and perhaps also keep a movement journal. :)

    Emy Shin (my new blog)

  8. How interesting! I never would have thought of it, but it makes so much sense. I am SO going to people watch tomorrow. :)

  9. No theater classes for me, but I think I might try this the next time I'm at the mall.

    I love to people watch, but I don't think I really study body movements like this. A good experiment.


  10. Great post! And I guess we do wear our hearts on our sleeves or our emotions.

  11. Another great post. I should definitely try to people watch more. :)

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  12. Bethany: I'm realizing that being able to nail motion well can help me write more economically--I can say a lot in fewer words. Pretty important in YA, where word counts are usually under 70K.

    Yat-Yee: research is your best friend when you feel low on ideas. Have fun creating your journal!

    Shannon: in MG in particular, movement is SO important. Kids usually don't have the insight or vocabulary to verbalize what they feel, but their bodies sure show it!

  13. VR: it wasn't until I took this class that I started noticing how much posture communicates, for example. It's a powerful idea for making your work more dramatic. Have fun with it.

    Shelley: Good point about acting and objective. I might do a post on that sometime soon.

    Tessa: Cousins. Intersting idea. I do think acting training is why I like writing in first person--I can have that same in-the-skin-of- someone-else experience. I'm always hesitant to rely on movies for research, because actors copy and amplify natural motion. You'll get something more organic from real life, though you're right it's good to see HOW actors choose motions to express certain things.

  14. Emy: Having facial expression taken off the table in this class was painful at first, but it helped train us to see (and act) people as wholly embodied.

    Janet: Having a wide repetoire of motions is so, so helpful in making your writing dramatic. Have fun researching!

  15. Donna: Enjoy researching. It's rather addictive. You might find yourself watching people at the supermarket and the park and standing in line at the movies, too. :-)

    Laura: You can tell so much just watching someone walk--he's happy or worried or depressed or angry. It's all in the posture and pace.

    Angela: Just another tool in your arsenal of awesome. Can't wait to see the posts you'll add to your thesaurus!

  16. Terrific post. I tend to watch body language instinctively with my students in class. I'm pretty good at knowing what they're feeling, when they're lost, when something's wrong at home... I have to pay more attention to HOW I know it. Their bodies do relay so much information. :)

  17. Oh, this is such a cool idea.

    I noticed I watch people more now than before . . . especially teens (since I write YA).

  18. I JUST took a theater seminar because it was required for the medical students. Yes, medical students! The drama students taught us how patients act in various situations and how we can read their body language. The entire time I kept thinking of how relevant this was to my novel.
    Great post and I'm excited to be a new follower!!

  19. What an interesting perspective. I try to add in hand gestures and movements, but I don't observe these in the real world like I do with dialogue. I'll make more of an effort from now on. Thanks for the tip!

    I haven't taken a theater course since HS and we didn't concentrate much on movement.

  20. Jemi: I hope you'll share what you observe! I'm mostly around the older teen set (18-21 yo), and they are a very expressive group.

    Stina: hope it proves useful to you.

    Saumya: How fascinating! I remember reading about some of these "bedside manner" tests being added to the boards for internal medicine, using actors to test doctors' body language smarts. I'd love to get my hands on some of those course materials!

    Welcome and thanks for the follow.

    Theresa: Observation will give you the most organic information--otherwise what you may end up with is cliche. Grab a notebook and do some watching. It's fun!

  21. Emotions in the body - perfect, and a great reminder as I'm revising. Thanks! :)

  22. I am going to start a movement journal today! What a terrific idea. Okay, that would be challanging to wear a body leotard for an acting class. You must need to be comfortable with your body shape!!! 'Course in my college days, it was a prettier shape.