Friday, March 26, 2010

Borrowed Fire: Physical gesture in fiction

For the past few weeks I've talked about ways to depict Big Ideas in fiction. But I'm feeling micro today. So for this writing workshop on The Brothers Karamazov, as Dmitri caroms across the landscape on the most fateful errand of his life, I would like to focus on the comic relief passage. I'm especially interested in a little moment of physical action that interrupts the usual Dostoevskian activity of yelling.

Desperate to borrow money (so that he can look even more like a murderer than he already does), Dmitri appeals to Mme. Hohlakov. This dingbat serves as Dostoevsky's explanation for why women should not be "liberated," or even allowed to read. She offers to solve all Dmitri's financial problems by giving him a suggestion worth a thousand times more than the paltry sum he wants to borrow: he must go to the gold mines. It takes Dmitri awhile to realize that Mme. H is giving him the suggestion instead of money, rather than in addition to it--and so follows a somewhat amusing scene of mistaken-assumption type humor. (It might be interesting, though not right now, to compare this to Melville's proto-Abbot-and-Costello routine in Moby Dick.) As Dmitri gets even more flustered, Mme. H offers him a final gift:

“Enough, Dmitri Fyodorovitch, enough!” Madame Hohlakov interrupted emphatically. “The question is, will you go to the gold-mines or not; have you quite made up your mind? Answer yes or no.”

“I will go, madam, afterwards.... I'll go where you like ... but now—”

“Wait!” cried Madame Hohlakov. And jumping up and running to a handsome bureau with numerous little drawers, she began pulling out one drawer after another, looking for something with desperate haste.

“The three thousand,” thought Mitya, his heart almost stopping, “and at the instant ... without any papers or formalities ... that's doing things in gentlemanly style! She's a splendid woman, if only she didn't talk so much!”

“Here!” cried Madame Hohlakov, running back joyfully to Mitya, “here is what I was looking for!”

It was a tiny silver ikon on a cord, such as is sometimes worn next the skin with a cross.

“This is from Kiev, Dmitri Fyodorovitch,” she went on reverently, “from the relics of the Holy Martyr, Varvara. Let me put it on your neck myself, and with it dedicate you to a new life, to a new career.”

And she actually put the cord round his neck, and began arranging it. In extreme embarrassment, Mitya bent down and helped her, and at last he got it under his neck-tie and collar through his shirt to his chest.

“Now you can set off,” Madame Hohlakov pronounced, sitting down triumphantly in her place again.

I direct my fellow writers to the two sentences beginning with "And she actually put the cord around his neck..." Dmitri's actions in helping her with this useless (to him) gift are so plausible, precisely because they seem implausible. As frustrated as he is, some ancient habit of politeness and propriety still kicks in. We all wait and watch as he gets the ikon properly situated. Of course this detail tells that Dmitri is not a bad sort deep down, for all his bluster and violence. It also shows us how hard he's trying to get on Mme. H's good side, as the money he still thinks he's getting fades away before his eyes. Also it briefly slows the pace of the story, which is otherwise in a headlong rush. Dostoevsky, once in awhile at least, recognizes that his readers need breathers; prose, like music, needs diminuendos as well as crescendos.

The preciseness of this action got me thinking about how writers use characters' physical gestures in general. I sometimes find myself getting so caught up in writing a dialog, or the broader actions in a scene, that I forget to look at what the characters are doing while everything's happening. Now, one can go too far in the other direction:

"What are you thinking?" she asked, twisting her hair around her index finger.
"Nothing," he said. He stubbed out his cigarette.
She took a sip of her wine. "It doesn't look like nothing."
"What are you implying?" he said, rubbing the back of his neck.

In real life, people are constantly moving in some fashion, unless they are dead. We don't need to record all these movements. However, when we do show them, they should be significant and interesting. In addition to over-recording the gestures, the passage above (straight from the fevered brain of yours truly, solely for the purposes of illustration) relies on stock gestures: wine, cigarettes, hair. B-movie stuff. The neck action is a little better; perhaps our man has a crick from some interesting experience we will learn about later.

This is an area in which writing is very much like acting. As writers, we inhabit imagined bodies and can operate them as we wish. This gives us great freedom, and we don't want to waste it standing around like dorks--or stubbing out cigarettes. I remember hanging out with an actor several years ago, and feeling increasingly self-conscious as I realized she was observing and filing away my gestures for later use. (I realized this because she told me she was doing it.) Nevertheless, this was a good practice for her as an artist, and it behooves writers to do it as well. In a couple of writing classes, I've been given the assignment to surreptitiously record conversations to learn how people really talk. I would give us all the assignment of watching how people move. Note especially the gestures that deviate from stock actions--which most gestures do, after all. I am even thinking of keeping a gesture library in my journal, so I won't fall back on hair-twisting.

At least, if my female character above is going to twist her hair, she must do it in an original and telling way. Maybe she could be wrapping it around a pencil, a process that ends up drawing far more of her concentration than she had expected to have to give it. Immediately she and the conversation become far more interesting.

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