Bu Audrey Quinn
Have you ever paid attention to the ways writers use movement to tell their stories?
Think about one of your favorite characters from a book you enjoy. One of mine is Wu Zetian from Iron Widow.
How do characters move?
Now think: Does your favorite character have any distinctive movements or “tics” they repeat throughout the course of the story? Is there a particular scene that stands out in your memory? What was your favorite character doing during that scene? How did the author describe their movements, their mannerisms, their speech, and their body language? What about the characters around them?
In my example, Iron Widow is set in a futuristic retelling of ancient China, in a place called Huaxia. The story features Mechas known as Chrysalises, which come from husks of an alien species that the people of Huaxia are battling. The Chrysalises are piloted by a male pilot and a female pilot through harnessing their combined qi. However, male pilots always drain the qi of female pilots, which results in the brutal deaths of thousands of young women and girls who were driven to become pilots by financial desperation.
The character Wu Zetian is a reimagining of the famous Empress Wu, who came to power during the 600s and is widely considered one of the greatest rulers of China of all time. Wu Zetian in Iron Widow is physically disabled, because her grandmother and mother have bound her feet, which was a traditional practice for rural Chinese girls at the time.
In one particularly striking moment early in the book, the author, Xiran Zhao, describes how Zetian is forced to stagger along a path using her bamboo cane back home, before she falls face first in the mud. They describe the brutal pain of Zetian’s feet: “The pain can’t surprise me because it has never left. A lightning strike of it shoots up my legs with every step I take. Every. Single. Step. I don’t walk. That burning tread over the frozen rice terrace was the last time I walked. Ever since then, my feet have been bound into bulging, misshapen mounds that can only totter.”(Zhao, pg 20-21)
The people around her are excited and rushing past to watch television, where a great Chrysalis battle is being broadcast. Laying in the mud, prone, vulnerable, and utterly alone, Zetian imagines having the same power as the male pilots of the Chrysalises: “I press my ear to the earth, not caring that it’s dirtying me further and dampening the rag tied around my hair…The men must be watching a livestream and betting on the number of battle points each pilot will achieve. But it’s so much more raw and visceral and stunning, sensing the physical force of the Chrysalises through the planet. What power. My throat goes dry, yet my mouth waters. I close my eyes, picturing myself taking command of a Chrysalis, towering over buildings and smashing the earth with my colossal limbs or luminous qi blasts. I could crush anyone who’s ever tried to crush me. I could free all the girls who’d love to run away.” (Zhao, pg 23)
I love these passages because they convey the core of Zetian’s personality so well through her movements. Her body has been mutilated in the name of tradition, for her family’s desire for her “future husband” to find her attractive. She is forced to “stagger” and “totter” in a body that won’t yield to her, yet she has a will of iron. Staggering through mud, and collapsing, she is humiliated, but more than that, Zetian is furious. She hates the society she lives in that sends girls-including her beloved older sister-off to die in battle while the boys get called heroes for killing them. She hates that she can do nothing (at least, not at this point in the book) to stop them.
And as she’s laying there in the mud, she presses her ear to the ground and feels it shake during the Chrysalis battle, and Zetian does the only thing she can do: she dreams. She dreams of “Oh, what I would do if I had that power…” It is striking, and makes me feel so much empathy for her character. It’s the point in the story where I start cheering for her in my head to seize that power and Crush Them All…
This particular example demonstrates how important movement is to a story, whether it is a character’s body language, or facial expressions, or other actions. There are several purposes and methods writers use movement in their stories.
How writers use movement in story
To establish a character’s personality through repeated movements that readers come to associate with them
This is a very common way writers use movement in stories.
Can you think of a character that stands out to you in a book you’ve read? How do you picture them moving and interacting with their environment? What are some common facial expressions they make?
A common trope I encounter a lot in fiction is characters who don’t “smile” or “grin,” but “smirk.” The word “smirk” conveys a movement of the mouth similar to a grin, but it belies a level of mischievousness or perhaps smugness on the character’s part that the action of grinning or smiling does not.
During dialogue, to emphasize characters’ moods, thoughts, and emotions.
Another way writers apply movement to their stories is during conversations between characters. This conveys relationships between characters and demonstrates emotion without characters needing to announce it aloud.
For example, a knight could be in conversation with his King about the sparkly rainbow dragon who likes to shoot people with glitter glue on its way to the village, but the King is more concerned with preparations for a diplomatic banquet he’s hosting in two days.
“My King,” Shawn insisted anxiously, twisting his hands together, “I must tell you that MoMo the dragon is on it’s way to the nearest village. We must make haste and gather a force to counter his glittery attack!”
The King, to Shawn’s dismay and frustration, held up two tablecloths and raised a furry white eyebrow. “What do you think, Shawn? The crimson with gold lotus flowers, or the ebony with silver fig leaves?”
Shawn sputtered, and stopped twisting his fingers together in shock. He forced his voice to remain level, though now he clenched his fists. “My King. I believe there are more pressing matters that require your attention!”
In this example, I gave Shawn a nervous tic of twisting his fingers with anxiety, and I made the King appear aloof and indifferent to the fact that a sparkly rainbow dragon is headed straight toward a village with the goal of bedazzling it and trapping its citizens in glitter glue. When Shawn the knight sees his King’s indifference, the nervous tic stops, and he clenches his fists, which conveys anger and frustration.
This is much more engaging than having Shawn just announce directly to the reader “I am frustrated that we are arguing about what table cloths to use for the royal feast when I have just told you, my King, that there is a dragon headed right for the village!”
As background action to set a scene, or add tension
Finally, another way writers utilize movement in stories is to establish an event or a scene with background action. This is particularly useful when it is a scene without dialogue or interactions between characters, but imagery alone is not enough to keep the flow of the story going.
One example that comes to mind is in Lord of the Rings. There are plenty of parts of the story that feature no dialogue, but they do feature movement, as in the movement of the hobbits Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry through some scary or spooky settings as they try to get to Rivendell.
Hopefully, this has shed some light on how critical it is for writers to effectively write movement into their stories, and how movement functions to drive stories forward and keep readers engaged.
Whether it’s through one individual character establishing their personality through particular movements, multiple characters interacting and applying different body language in different situations, or other outside action and movements that set the scene of a particular event in a story, movement is an oft underappreciated aspect of writing effective stories.
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