Friday, December 17

Posted by Laurel Garver on Friday, December 17, 2010 14 comments
I have just seven more scheduled posts till year's end, so I thought it would be fun (and frankly more sane for me) to repost my seven most popular blogposts of 2010, minus the contests and the blogfest entries (except one as a holiday treat).

The repost below appeared in October 2010 and according to my stat counter got more pageviews than comments. Which of you had been googling "unitards"? Huh? Huh? (FYI the unitard requirement for the acting class I describe below was FAR worse for the guys than for us girls.)

(I really need to break this parenthetical asides habit....)

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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. This is interesting. I always look for new ways to "see" how characters can move, or act.
    Thanks. This was very helpful.
    Have a great weekend!

  2. excellent point! It's so funny b/c I was doing just that exact thing watching the Today show yesterday and sat down and wrote up my post for next Thursday... brainwaves~ ;o)

    Merry Christmas! <3

  3. LOVE this! And, I'm pretty sure the reason I missed this post the first time around was because I was in the hospital having a baby :) When writing, I try to think of my characters expression (facial) and possibly how they are standing- but I honestly never thought to think about the rest of their body. But you are so right- you can tell what a person is feeling just from watching their movements! Thanks for this- I'll be adding it to my notes!

  4. Brilliant post, Laurel. Watching movies with talented actors/actresses might not hurt either. :D

  5. Oooh, this is a great post! I'm going to incorperate some of these ideas into my rewrites (I need something besides smiling going on)!

  6. So interesting! I'd like to take a similar class, especially for the 'wearing a mask' excercise where forced to observe body movements.

  7. This is great. Body language is so important and so hard to get right!

  8. I try to pay attention to what people are saying through body language, both so I can understand them better and because it can help me put in the right subtleties in my writing.

    Great post!

  9. Christine: go forth and observe! :-) have a great weekend yourself.

    Leigh: often it's seeing a unique motion or one that strikes me as communicating a lot that makes me yank out the notebook pronto. I'm intrigued to see what you write Thursday.

    Kelly: Your motion journal is an easy thing to work on during the holidays. Tuck yourself in a corner nursing the baby and watch all the relatives!

  10. Stina: Sometimes watching actors can be helpful, but keep in mind they are imitating nature. Going to the original source is best, but granted not always possible. Anguish is a hard one to observe from life, though newscasts might be a way to gather data from real emotion, not pretend emotion.

    Lisa: glad it's helpful. Layering in body language usually happens for me in revision too. My draft dialogue often looks like a script.

    Lynn: Not that the face is unimportant, but it does get overemphasized in a lot of fiction. Taking a class like this really forced me to pay attention to the whole body.

  11. Laura: That acting class helped a lot--knowing not only what a type of walk looked like but what it felt like. Having both sides of the equation helps you develop language to describe it well.

    GE: Journaling some of what you see can be a great timesaver, especially if you keep your notes organized. Your character is nervous and you can immediately have the perfect posture or gesture to communicate that.

  12. Karen: glad you found it useful.

    Victoria: Thanks. I've found many incredibly useful writing tools and techniques in acting classes.