A reprint of a tip from September - 2016.
The quote above is from Hamlet's speech to the players, Act 3, scene 2. Only a fair instruction for using gestures.
I've been thinking a lot about gestures lately. My students have asked about them. I did a search and I was surprised to discover that I have never really had a tip about them before in depth. This is strange, as I believe they are a huge and integral part of telling.
The dictionary defines a gesture as:
A movement of your body (especially of your hands and arms) that shows or emphasizes an idea or a feeling.
Now, that covers a lot of ground! How does the beginning teller decide about gestures? If you look at the definition, you can reverse the process. You can ask yourself,
What movement of my body (or my hands and arms) would show or emphasize this specific idea or a feeling?
If I am talking about a bird flying up in the sky, I would probably look up - not just with my eyes, but with my head, and maybe even turn my body and shoulders upward to emphasize.
If I followed the flight of the bird across the sky until it landed on a nearby branch, I might use my hand and arm to indicate its path, ending with pointing at the exact point of the bird's destination. I might also show with my body, perhaps a small step or a lean backwards to show my surprise at how close the bird was to me now.
At this point, you may want to look at Sean Buvala's wonderful video about gestures. I have recommended it before. Sean speaks about the three elements of gesture: Intend, Activate and Linger. Also, look at the gestures Sean uses for the flight of the bird, and the piece of cheese falling to the ground. Then come back to the next paragraph and we'll talk a little more about gestures.
Sean's gesture for the flight of the bird was different than my suggestion, but that's OK. YOU must decide for yourself (perhaps with the help of a coach) what the best movements are to emphasize an idea or feeling.
I believe there is another part of using gestures that is important: It is that gestures start somewhere - go somewhere - linger (as Sean states) - and then usually come back to somewhere (resolve themselves).
Bill Harley says, "Relax, breathe, take a moment to find your home. This is what you will always come back to." This is usually your arms at your sides. For Sean, it is with his arms slightly bent at the elbows. In the second part of the video, Sean's "home" is with his forearms resting on the table. Most of the time, your gestures come back to (or resolve to) home. But sometimes, like when the fox snatches the cheese, one gesture morphs into the next. But as Sean says, it is still a conscious, intentional decision about what gesture one is using.
So first you must ask yourself what gesture will emphasize the idea or feeling; then, make a conscious decision to use it. Understand where it is coming from; where it is going; make it intentional; activate it; linger and then resolve it.
Rehearsal and practice is the place to "play" with different types of gestures until you get them "right" for your story.