Should you avoid using hard-to-describe gestures and acts in a novel? Some gestures that are often used in real life are hard to describe without using familiar languages or slang.

One such example is:

He did the "I am watching you sign" before leaving.

Should a novice writer avoid these hard-to-describe signs and gestures through a novel and wouldn't that make the novel extremely bland as the number of actions would be then very limited and even sound unnatural? What advice do you have for novice writers facing such a problem?

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    I assume you meant the "I am watching you" sign rather than the "I am watching you sign".
    – Stef
    Jul 30, 2021 at 15:55
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    If one can't adequately describe a physical motion whilst also conveying its intent, then I would argue that they are a very poor writer. As Harry gazed menacingly at the perp before sending him back into the streets, he brought his hand up slowly towards his own face - stopping abruptly with two fingers pointing directly inward at his eyes - which to the uninitiated, is the universal signal meaning "I'll be watching you!".
    – Glen Yates
    Jul 30, 2021 at 20:07
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    @GlenYates - that kind of thing, done too often, is what I call 'clunky'. Aug 1, 2021 at 8:41
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    @gidds: "Bear in mind that some people may not be familiar with a particular sign or gesture, so describing it physically would confuse them." - when a text mentions just the meaning of a gesture without describing it physically, and I do not know that particular sign or gesture, this usually confuses me very much as a reader. Rather than immersing myself in the text, I'll keep wondering what that gesture could possibly be. Aug 1, 2021 at 13:14
  • 5
    "tapped his eyes with two fingers" - Ouch.
    – JRE
    Aug 2, 2021 at 12:52

5 Answers 5


Bob gestured, and the meaning was clear...:

Simple vocalizations will also fall into this category.

The trouble with gestures is that they can have different meanings. They say you communicate with body language more than words, and that CAN be true. But that will be difficult to relay with the "What were you thinking!" gesture to the head. Its not that this won't relay the information. It's that it tells what is happening. Gestures should SHOW what is said. Using an explanation as the descriptor just sounds like force-feeding information.

The point of view of the characters is critical here.

  • Your point of view character can be thinking while he gestures, and you can describe what he thinks about it without showing (he expressed his feelings with a rude gesture).
  • If a gesture has a very simple meaning, it can be a descriptor (he wagged his finger no).
  • Incoming messages can be interpreted in thought (while the gesture was unfamiliar, she was pretty sure it was profane).
  • Context is also important for the gesture, so associated dialog and actions can explain what it means (Bill's face twisted into a sneer. He shook his head and clucked his tongue. "When will you ever get it right?")
  • An entire conversation can be held with only gestures. To do so, there would be LOTS of interpretation, mis-communication, and guessing. Having characters struggle a bit interpreting the gestures could make explaining them in thoughts seem more natural. (She signaled to him to pick up the ball. His puzzled expression turned to realization and he reached down).
  • If you must use a complex gesture that needs explanation, use one or more of these techniques as much as possible. (Ted's hate was clear. He pointed two fingers to his eyes, then pointed them at her, as if to say, "I'm watching you!" She returned the gesture at him.

Otherwise, anything hard to relay in words is hard to relay in words! I find alternatives if I struggle to communicate something effectively. If later you come up with a brilliant and expressive way to say it, edit it in. Otherwise, I wouldn't rely on gestures too much.


Gestures aren’t just things a character does with their hands. It could be spitting, blinking, shivering; that is any body centered motion that conveys a character’s inner state.

Gestures are effective action-beats when they amplify character’s state subtly, as in not drawing attention to themselves. Therefore, your intuition that hard to express gestures will work against your writerly goals is a good one.

If the gesture is too complicated to share in a few words, then it changes from accenting the emotion of the moment to being a full on character action that interacts with the setting and the other characters in the scene.

They are best used sparingly. Too many gestures will read like the characters all have tics.

If there is some action that you think makes the scene better and it can’t be communicated as an action-beat gesture, then elevate it to an action. Just make sure that other characters in the scene react to it since the character is electing to use non-verbal communication to convey something they think is important to those characters — they could say i’m watching you or they could use your two finger gesture thingy.

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    Yeah, my favorite example of this: "Henry made a fist, one finger at a time, making sure to save his middle finger for last."
    – Weckar E.
    Jul 30, 2021 at 8:54

'I'm watching you' he gestured as he was leaving.

It's essentially a piece of dialogue, treat it as such.


A general rule for writing (at least modern fiction that sells) is to try to never do anything that will wake your reader up from the trance of living your story.

Anything that is complicated and/or requires interpretation will break this rule. It will wake the reader up and force them to think that they are reading a novel and that they are now required to interpret what the writer is writing.

The same goes for anything that is hard to describe. Your unthankful job as a writer is to take the hard to describe and describe it, without breaking the above rule... or, if you're unable, write about something else. (I.e. write what you know... or do tons of research...)

He did the "I am watching you sign" before leaving-construction requires your reader to stop the immersion and think about what sign the person could be doing.

It's not showing the reader the sign.

I'd rather do something along: He pointed his fingers at his eyes and then at me. His gaze was dark and intense. This was definitely future problems coming my way.

I'm also not sure you should worry so much about if this gesture means something else in another culture than the one you're writing for.

For one, that's what translators are for. After all, the language is translated, obviously, so should the gestures be.

Also, maybe some people won't understand the gesture verbatim, but if you try to do a generic gesture or gesture description no one will get excited by it. (I.e. don't do it, it's bad writing...)


Should you avoid using hard-to-describe gestures and acts in a novel?

It depends on how strongly you feel about the description in terms of adding value to the story. If you find that after a while you become frustrated with trying to makes this work, you could try 1) walking away and coming back to it or 2) figuring out a different approach, perhaps with analogy or metaphor. I think doing the latter makes for less pressure which I believe makes for a better overall story.

I didn't mean to give the impression these type of details should be left out. As my fingers press upon each key, forcing the position of material space into downward motion. An imperceptibly brief moment later, the once occupied space rises back to the position my finger last first touched. I observe that these actions are engaged with a medium to which a symbol is transmitted as part of an overall representation of what is commonly referred to as a sentence. My arms are placed on the desk. My feet mostly on the floor. I look over to the left. The end.

I avoided this for several months and I feel ok about it. I personally believe if you're not driven by an idea, it's not the most important one.

  • 2
    I think the given text is a little too vague. As the saying goes, "Show, don't tell." There are exceptions to that adage, but I don't think this is one. I think the description should be vivid enough that the reader can picture something in their mind. It may not be exactly the same thing the author pictured, but that does not matter. Aug 1, 2021 at 10:05

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