Saturday, April 23, 2011

Talking Hands In Worldbuilding

Can a gesture make or break my story? Hardly. In fact, it’s probably at the bottom of the list of things I need to think about to make my story a best seller. But, it is an out of the ordinary way of putting a face to my worldbuilding, especially the culture in the story. An image of Mr. Spock and his hand greeting pops into my head and standing right behind him is a whole culture of what it means to be Vulcan. “Live Long and Prosper.” A great gesture that lives on beyond the series.

In the mountains where I live, the old-timers will drive down the road in their old trucks and gesture to the oncoming cars or trucks checking out the reply. A greeting, yes. But it’s more of a non-verbal question and answer dialogue with fingers. As the oncoming vehicle approaches, the old-timer will lift one solitary finger of the left hand, the pointer. The gesture is saying, “Howdy. I’m from here. Who are you?” The response could be a “howdy back,” using again the one finger signal, indicating, “I am not a stranger.” As the vehicles pass, the drivers will eye each other and bob their heads. Confirmation made. Other responses could be lifting four fingers of the left hand with the thumb hugging the wheel, a two finger wave, or no reply at all. These responses say to the old-timer,“flatlanders, or downlanders, or folks from off the mountain.” These are only the surface meanings of the gestures. I would think that what's underneath is the only reasons for having a specific gesture that can give bulk to a character or a society.

Of course, any worldbuilding I can think up needs to be more than window dressing. Going back to my mountain gesture, what if in my story the main character is traveling through a secluded mountain region where there are two warring factions. What if not knowing the right greeting could get him killed.
I would love to know what gestures, if any, in books or movies have stood out in your mind. Do you think a gesture can help describe your character or the society in which you’re building?

If gestures interest you, here’s a site that describes a fistful. Chuckle.

Till Next time,


Stacie Carver said...

I immediately think of the Brad Pitt movie Inglourious Basterds. The bar scene when the soldiers fail to order Whisky in the German way gives away that they are not Germans and all hell breaks loose. The British/American way to indicate 3 are holding up your index, middle and ring finger with pinkie and thumb closed. The German way to indicate 3 is to hold up the thumb, index and middle with the ring and pinkie closed. Quite fascinating that such a simple gesture could get so many killed.

Marilyn Muñiz said...

I plan to use gesture in my novel, just haven't worked out the details yet. It's a great way expand show and not tell about characters.

Gia Murphy said...

In Australia, if you make a peace sign, make sure to have the the palm outwards or you are saying Up Yours (polite version)

And the thumbs up hand sign has the same meaning if the arm moves up too. While if it is just presented without the upward motion it is more a greeting.

I hadn't thought about hand signals having different meanings. Really have to think up some instances for my story now.

Anonymous said...

In Renaissance Man, there was a scene where the protag, who is not in the military, gives a salute to some soldiers and they laugh because he didn't put his hand right for their arm of the service.

There's also the difference in the way people hold cigarettes. Some ways are distinctly European while others are more often North American.

Good post. I need to think of some ways to incorporate this.

Rosi said...

I think about all the little gestures, but particularly a quick touch to the side of the nose as a signal, in The Sting, one of my all-time favorite movies. I love all the mentions of cultural gestures in your post and in the comments. It certainly is food for thought. It can really help define a character. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

Ella Gray said...

Cool post! I don't know if this counts, but I'm kind of obsessed with secret societies and that makes me a big fan of secret handshakes and the like. I've come up with several types and use them in a few different stories. Usually it's very subtle signals and gestures that help one member identify another without acknowledging anything verbally and without anyone else noticing. It's fun.

cgibson5o said...

Any book or movie about the Italians or the US Army Special Forces could, and should, be full of gestures. Both groups have taken hand gestures, not only to an art form, but to a whole vocabulary. It's not just hand gestures, either. Many cultures have ingrained gestures using other parts of the body. The Japanese with the bow, and be careful showing the bottom of your feet to an Arab. Having hand gestures in a story adds an extra layer of visualization and depth.

EW Gibson said...


Thanks for posting on a holiday weekend. Great example, from the movies. Can you imagine, they got the language down, the clothing, but one little gesture was the tip off.

Here's how the Chinese count. The Chinese use only one hand when counting numbers. The number six is represented with a hand with just the pinky and thumb outstretched. Seven is putting the middle and index fingers together with the thumb, leaving the ring and pinky at a closed position. Eight is represented with the index finger and thumb outstretched like a shape of a L. Nine is represented by the index finger curved downwards to look like a hook. Ten is represented with a closed fist, sometimes with the thumb crossing with the index finger. Ten is also often seen with both index fingers crossing in the shape of plus sign.

Amazing stuff gestures.

EW Gibson said...


Thanks for posting on the holiday. I can't wait to see what you come up with. I know it's gone to be a whopper!

EW Gibson said...


I believe Pres. Bush in '92 on his trip to Australia made that mistake with the peace sign.

Like to hear what you come up with for your story.

Thanks for coming by and posting.

EW Gibson said...


Great examples! I had forgotten the different way European hold their cigarettes. Also, the way they hold their knives and forks when eating. Wow!

EW Gibson said...


Wasn't that Paul Newman tapping his nose? I still remember the music! Thanks for coming by on the holiday weekend.

EW Gibson said...


Me too! In my present WIP, I have secret society. So, I'm interested in finding ways for them to talk without saying anything.

Here's a link on Masonic Secret Handshakes with drawings and descriptions. They might spark an idea.

EW Gibson said...


I like the idea of taking gestures to an artform. Cool!

Here's a link you might find interesting.

Thanks for posting.

Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina said...

Good post -- and thanks for the website. I'm new to your blog (came via Rosi's), but plan to check in again.

EW Gibson said...

From one Elizabeth to another,

Thank you so much for coming by, thanks again Rosi. As I find interesting links, I will be sharing them here. So check back. Love to see you again.

Erin Kane Spock said...

Oddly, I think of the constable's salute in Much Ado About Nothing.
Fun blog. Glad to have found you!

EW Gibson said...


I don't remember that one, I'll have to check that one out. Thanks. Do you remember the insulting gesture early on in Romeo and Juliet? Sampson, one of the servants of the Capulets, flicks his thumbnail from his upper teeth at a servant of the Montagues. It was a good set-up gesture that spoke volumes of the relationship of the two families.

Glad you found us.

Melanie said...

I didn't see Inglorious Bastards but I would have passed, kinda. I learned to count on one hand in American Sign Language. Talk about gestures! My introduction to ASL was through the movie The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. In one of my stories, I have a character who uses sign language and shares it with comrades who happen to work as carnies! Can you imagine whispering in sign language?

EW Gibson said...


How do you whisper in sign language? under the covers? under the table? very softly? heheh!

I found this link and I thought of you. MIT is conducting studies on how to get computers to recognize human gestures. Isn't that amazing. What possiblities that has for a story with high tech.


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