What ASL Can Teach Us About Writing

490806286_45617d8c53_o  

ASL can teach me about writing?

 

No, I have not been sniffing glue.

 

American Sign Language is a vibrant and engaging language. There is such freedom in the way you use the language to communicate and express yourself.  If you know the rules you can shape the things you say to your liking.

 

I'll show ya.

 

You want to say you're confused. You could:

  • sign the word confuse
  • sign a question mark
  • sign it's over your head
  • sign a question mark at your forehead and look really confused (take your index finger and hook it like a question mark right at the front of your forehead)
  • If you're really really confused you can take all 5 fingers of one hand and sign questions marks with all 5 at your forehead.  Mega confusion!  You add in some crazy facial expressions and they know that you're crazy confused.
  • sign you don't understand and some combination of the signs if you feel so inclined.

 

[video width="640" height="480" wmv="http://rochellebarlow.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Video_00006.wmv"][/video]

 I threw this video together so you could see what I was talking about.  My toddler was desperate to get on camera so I had to rush it and couldn't redo it.  

When you sign something is large you not only show that with your signs and classifiers you show it with your face.  You puff out your cheeks, you open your mouth to make the CHA sound. You frequently will hear people signing as much as you see them.  When you sign something is tiny you can kind of fold your body in, squint your eyes, pinch your mouth together and get really close to your hands.  Ya know, get small.

 

[video width="640" height="480" wmv="http://rochellebarlow.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Video_00008.wmv"][/video]

 

When I interpret I often wind up making sound effects.  I'll say it's like you know, CHA, and making explosion sounds, or making my voice baby tiny squeaky.  It makes it more fun that way, right?!

 

You can change the pace: zip through them or slo-o-o-o-w down. You can change the meaning of a sign or emphasize a sign. You can get really big and all up in their grill or small to create mood, show emotion, and convey attitude.

 

3256729969_1e922b01e6_o

 

Now how does all this help with writing?

 

[Tweet "Can ASL really help with writing?"]

 

Word choice.

 

There's so many ways to say one thing.  You can take the language we have and shape it to communicate our message.  You can say confused, but there's innumerable ways to say or show confusion.  It's that whole show versus tell thing again.

 

Can you manipulate your words to convey what you want to say in a unique and fun way?  I'm sure you can think of amazing writers that have this gift to bend words into beautiful profound prose.  It doesn't have to be beautiful. You want just enough to blow people's undies off.  In a good way.  Not a creepy-sick way.

 

Sound effects are really effective as well.

 

I like to think of that scene with Mrs White in Clue.  Yes, the flames on the side of her face, but also that part where she says Pfft.  She does a reverse raspberry (I prefer the term zerbert, but I'll conform just for you).  It stands out in the audience's mind and adds an element that otherwise wouldn't have been there.

 

Facial expressions are vital.

 

4146942636_f01e42e739_o

 

You can show confusion with a raised eyebrow, a blank stare, an open mouth, or some kind of combination of all three.  In conversation it is important to have expressions to follow along with.

 

When you are in a conversation with someone what things indicate they are listening to you?  Understanding you?  Interested? Bored? Doubtful?

 

You use these subtle (sometimes not so subtle) cues to guide your conversation.  If they seem like they're not paying attention you start talking crazy:  "I just killed 20 people and ate my own boogers."  They're still not listening?  Kick it up a notch or find someone else to talk to.

 

3716224915_b5e91ca011_o

 

490807618_947010eba8_o

They're distracted by someone behind you?  You'll probably turn around to see what it is.  They look doubtful you'll probably start defending yourself or over-explaining.

 

In a story these cues are just as vital to the reader.

 

 

 

Add on to facial expressions with body language.

 

We all use body language to tell our true meaning.  You've heard those studies. We communicate 55% with our bod,y 38% with our tone (or in ASL, your face and hands), and 7% with our words.  Are you keeping true to this in your story?

 

Body language is another engaging way to pull the reader in and to connect with your characters and set the mood.

 

5815349222_4d94f34466_o

 

You can show confidence, irritation, anger, excitement, nervousness, and worry with the body.

 

With ASL you really learn to key in to other people's movements and face even when they're not signing at all.  In writing I think it's important for it to be natural and subtle. Then at other times to be in your reader's face with emotion and attitude.

 

Character Development

 

2566059787_0f1a80a9f5_o

 

Does your character have a tic unique to them?  For instance, when my husband is nervous about something he touches his earlobe.  I have no idea why he does it and he doesn't even know he does it.  {Sorry babe}

 

Does your character show his emotions in a certain way.  I may show nervousness one way, but Johnny shows it differently.  Maybe I'm obvious: shaking voice, wringing and shaking my hands, pacing, and sweaty.  Johnny is more subtle: eyes dart around and he cracks his knuckles.

 

Maybe your character has a weird quirk.  Since I outed my husband it's only fair that I share something embarrassing as well.

 

Whenever I feel any intense emotion: nervous, anger, excitement, sad, or any extreme temperature I get so sweaty.  Just my underarms.  No other place.  It doesn't matter how much deodorant I used.  It doesn't matter if I just got out of the shower (I can sweat in the shower), it doesn't matter that I use prescription deo. I will sweat. It won't be pretty.  I think I can even sweat when I feel extreme boredom.  Thank goodness I'm rarely bored.

 

That was more than you wanted to know about me.  Sorry.

 

Can you still look me in the eyes?  Why did I confess this ridiculous physical issue?  So you'll be my friend out of pity!? Yes! I mean, no. I did it so you can see that these things are important for your characters to be real people.

 

Your other characters will notice these things about each other.  If there's pit stains on a shirt it'll show up.

 

Your character will base their choices around these things.  Do I wear gray shirts?  Not frequently.  If I am going to be in a situation where I know I'll be hot/cold/full of emotion I will make sure my shirt won't show sweat puddles (loose and gauzy).

 

Your character will be aware or even paranoid.  I've had to sign and had sweat issues going on.  I'm going to be moving my arms around all sorts!  What am I going to do?  Go to the bathroom and put squares of paper towels in my underarms to try and soak up sweat and prevent more sweat.   Gross!  Now you really can't look me in the eye.  Don't judge.  Desperate times people, desperate times.

 

ASL can teach us something about writing.  We may have already known these things and that's okay.  ASL has taught us its true importance to include these various elements in our stories and in our characters for a rich story.  Bonus: you learned some weird things about me and some fun things about ASL.

 

P.S. I have a character that is Deaf in my novel. When I have her in dialogue I do not write it out in gloss -- meaning written ASL. Example: I STORE GO I   Yes, it's in all caps.  I do not write it out like I store go I either.  I don't put it in italics as I have seen one author do.  It's not a thought, it's dialogue.  I write it like so, "I'm going to the store." she signed.  If it's a conversation I don't add the dialogue tag she/he signed each time, just as you wouldn't with he/she said.

 

If it's ever good for the story I will show a sign.

 

Writing Prompt

 

Pick one of the pictures in this post and write a scene about it.  Use the above techniques and the other ones you keep in your tool belt.

 

[Tweet " ASL really can teach me how to write richer scenes and characters."]

If you enjoyed the post, please consider sharing it with your writer friends!

 

Question for ya:

Caption one of the photos for fun! Put your awesome caption in the comments below!

 

Did I miss anything?  What element listed here do you think you could implement  in your writing?

 

 

Featured Image Photo Source: Luca Cerabona