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While writing stories how do I describe the action of common hand gestures, for instance the "come on" signal.

Is there any reference? I found a list of hand gestures in wikipedia but obviously it's not geared to writers so no descriptive text examples.

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What's wrong with: "He signaled for his partner to follow." or "He swayed his hands in a 'bring it on!' provocation."? – Mussri Aug 4 '13 at 17:57
up vote 8 down vote accepted

In many cases you don't actually need, or necessarily want, to describe the gesture itself. It is often enough, or even preferable, to (a) convey that there was a gesture and (b) convey its meaning, without describing the gesture. There are at least two reasons for this:

  1. The gesture is idiomatic and a specific description would just get in the way. "He gave her a quick thumbs-up" will be understood by most, but a description of how he held his hand and extended his thumb upward will be somewhere between tedious and opaque to the reader.

  2. The gesture is not universal. I've been told that the American "come here" gesture means something different in other places, and that in at least one country (Italy) you signal "come here" by holding your hand differently (palm down rather than up). Describing the gesture wouldn't necessarily tell the reader what you meant. In cases like that it is better to say something like "he beckoned to her to join him" or "he signaled her to join him".

How does writing in your native language handle gestures? Are you used to reading physical descriptions of gestures in place of their meanings? Even when the language varies, you can take your cues from how others handle this problem in your field/location/market.

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In Italy, the "come here" and "hello" gestures are the opposite of America's: "come here" is palm down, fingers curling in, while "hello" is palm up, fingers curling in. – Lauren Ipsum Aug 4 '13 at 21:21
"He beckoned to her to join him." You need the preposition. – Robusto Aug 5 '13 at 0:30
@Robusto oops, that was a typo. Will fix. – Monica Cellio Aug 5 '13 at 0:53
@MonicaCellio Is it acceptable if I use the present tense form of backoned? Like below "He beckons to her to come nearby" – user5126 Aug 5 '13 at 1:07
Dittos. Trying to describe exactly how someone held or moved his hands for some conventional gesture would likely be tedious and confusing. I think you'd have readers playing with their fingers trying to position their hands the way you describe and saying to themselves, "Wait, forefinger where? Fingers pointing ... oh!!! I get it ..." Unless the exact positioning of the hand for such a gesture is critical to the story, I'd just forget it, just say, "He signaled to her to follow," "Bob made a hand signal from across the room to indicate he was ok", etc. If the reader thinks of a different ... – Jay Aug 5 '13 at 15:13

I think the basic issue you're running into here is that IRL the "come here" wave is quick but so far, anyway, all of the devices used to describe it are not. For instance...

He turned his hand, clenched his fingers toward his palm, and pointed his thumb skyward.

...is a great way of describing a thumbs-up if this gesture is, for instance, foreign to the character narrating the scene. If he's not, it rings of trying a little too hard.

My ways of accomplishing this:

  1. Keep it short and to the point. "She beckoned for me." "He gave me a thumbs-up." People already know what these mean in our culture, and if someone not native the culture is reading this, well, they'll feel that much more immersed in the story because you took it for granted that they know these things.

  2. Imply it. If your character says "Good job, Jim!", you probably don't need to indicate that she also gave Jim a thumbs-up unless you want to highlight something about the thumbs-up (for instance, if it's kind of dorky and quaint and you want that to be related to the thumbs-up-giver, or if she has a large and particularly ugly thumb that Jim can't stop staring at). Or, they can just say "Jim, for the love of Mike, come here! Here! Where I am standing1" Can't you kind of see the hand gestures the person is giving there, even without elucidating them?

That being said, if you're running this through on your first draft and you're not sure whether or not to include the gesture, err on the side of overwriting. You can always edit on the second go (and the third, and the fourth, and so on).

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The best way to describe a gesture is how the body physically moves to make that gesture. Here's a few examples:

Telling someone to come here

He swept his hand toward his body.

Flashing the okay sign

He put his forefinger to his thumb forming an o and raised his other three fingers.

Giving thumbs up

He turned his hand, clenched his fingers toward his palm, and pointed his thumb skyward.

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I'm not even sure if this isn't sarcastic... – YatharthROCK Aug 6 '13 at 10:46
Why would you think that? I'm a writer and answered the user's question. Maybe it wasn't the most detailed or exact answer, but the tone definitely wasn't sarcastic. The gestures were the first ones that popped into my head. – lonehorseend Aug 6 '13 at 18:43
Sincerely sorry. I thought that was from the point of a reader, "He turned his hand, clenched his fingers toward his palm, and pointed his thumb skyward" would seem like a ridiculously long and convoluted way to say "He gave a thumbs up"... – YatharthROCK Aug 7 '13 at 2:32
Apology accepted. No worries. You're right it was a little long winded. :) – lonehorseend Aug 7 '13 at 4:47

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