23/09/2011 19:39 BST | Updated 20/11/2011 05:12 GMT

Bad Sex and Empty Gestures: Part one

I am working on a new novel, set in France, and have realised, not for the first time, how difficult it is to convey everyday gestures and physical expressions in print without appearing ridiculous.

What does the following mean to you?

"He stretched out his right hand, palm down, waist-high, fingers spread, and began to rotate it through 180 degrees at medium speed, first one way, then the other, along the axis of his arm."

Or how about this?

"He turned his palms up and extended both arms in front of him. Cupping the left hand slightly, he moved it up three inches from the horizontal, then three inches below, balancing the action with an identical, but alternate, movement of his right hand. Then he did it again - twice."

But forget hands. Try this:

"He raised his upper lip, so that his top teeth were exposed, causing tight lines to appear down both cheeks. At the same time, he narrowed his eyes, flared his nostrils and elevated his eyebrows, causing his brow to furrow."

Do you get my drift? In the first example, the character is demonstrating that, whatever it is that is under discussion, it could work, only don't bet the house on it. In the second, it's more, "I don't know, those two things you've just described seem pretty evenly balanced to me." A "grimace" - also, on occasion, a "rictus" of disapproval is, of course, the subject of the third.

I am working on a new novel, set in France, and have realised, not for the first time, how difficult it is to convey everyday gestures and physical expressions in print without appearing ridiculous. This is why popular novels are full of characters who nod and shrug and sigh all the time, or shake their heads, or make "loose" gestures.

You can, it is true, describe these pretzel-like motions, and I have attempted to do so above. But is it worth the effort?

Consulting some well-known novels that just happened to be close by, I searched for some quick-fix literary tips. Dickens, I quickly discovered, does not waste a lot of time on the indescribable. In A Tale of Two Cities, he describes, at great length, how characters look and what is odd about them. But, by and large, unless people are squaring up for a fight or smiling or grinning, he leaves their hands and facial expressions alone.

A serial novelist, he wrote fast. He had deadlines to meet. In The Pickwick Papers, one of the characters raises an elbow to his eye to wipe away his tears (try it). I think he meant the crook of his arm. But by the time he had committed his description to paper he had already moved on to the next chapter.

Flaubert was not so sparing. Madame Bovary is replete with facial ticks and gestures. Old Heloise heaves a sigh and passes out. Emma would sing to her husband "with a sigh many a melancholy adagio". Rodolphe makes a gesture that said (we are told), "I could crush him with a flip of my finger". Showing Emma round the Chapel of the Virgin, the beadle (yes!) makes "an all-embracing gesture of demonstration ... prouder than a country squire showing his espaliers". Emma, asked where somebody has gone, makes a gesture "that signified she did not know". Dr Larivière, on seeing Emma's blackened corpse, makes "a slow gesture" with his shoulders. But, so far as I can tell, there is only one frown and a mere two shrugs, both "of the shoulders," which I would have thought went without saying. No doubt, others were lost in translation.

Still in France, but this time in 1942, one of the minor characters in Sebastian Faulkes's World War II novel Charlotte Gray takes charge of the modish English clothes worn by the eponymous Charlotte prior to her parachute drop into occupied Limoges: "'We'll keep these safe for you until your return,' she said, her expression communicating disapproval ..."

Yes, but how did the aforementioned clothes retention operative communicate her disapproval? Did she hold her nose while keeping the clothes at arms' length? Did she open her mouth wide in horror while sticking her tongue out? Did she simply raise a "quizzical" eyebrow? We are not told, and the truth is we don't need to be. We picture it for ourselves, a bit like imagining what characters look like in The Archers.

Later, in quasi-literary critic mode, Charlotte (ie Faulkes) muses on the literary trickery of Marcel Proust.

"As she lay there, she remembered reading Proust's novel at Monsieur Loiseau's house and being thrilled by what the writer seemed to have done. The more you come to know a place, in general, the more it lost its essence and became defined by its quirks and its shortcomings; the suggestion of something numinous or meaningful was usually available with full force only to the first-time visitor and gradually decreased with familiarity. Yet in his book Proust seemed to have worked the paradoxical trick of making his places universal by the familiarity and attentiveness with which he described their individual characters."

I will not dwell on the obvious fact that Faulkes must have re-read Proust quite a bit for good stuff on France. Nor will I comment on Ms Gray's sudden emergence as a literary intellectual. My point is that worthwhile fiction is defined as much by what is left out, or stressed and repeated, as it is by endless, detailed description of the bleeding obvious. Particularly when the bleeding obvious is so hard to make apparent.

"Zozo's plump face split into a smile," Faulkes writes at one point, and that's about as far as he delves into facial tickery, or trickery. A little bit later, we read, "Hartmann raised his shoulders and spread his hands a little." Was he shrugging? I think so, but I'm not sure, and I don't think it matters. At any rate, it is a rare example of gesture politics in Faulkes.

His novel approach is one that I hope to follow.

Next week: Bad Sex