by Ellen Buikema
More than half of human communication consists of body language, which we use to communicate feelings, thought, and ideas without speech. Body language impacts other people’s perception and conveys our emotions far more than we think it does. Physical descriptions of what our characters are doing allows us to show-not-tell what is happening to them internally. It is one of the simplest ways to give the reader a feel for characters’ depth of mood and attitude.
Can you communicate well with others if you sit on your hands? I tried to and discovered that I don’t express myself as well. I’m a hand-gesturer. Plus, with COVID-19 upon us, I’ve realized how often I touch my face!
I also move around a lot, especially if I’m nervous. The first time I taught a classroom full of adults, I paced the entire time. Thinking back, I wonder if I made anyone dizzy.
Simple tasks require a surprising amount of movement.
Here’s a quick exercise that will give you a feel for how many movements you actually make. It will help you determine the balance needed between dialogue and description in your writing.
Choose an activity you commonly do at home or at work. It can be as small a task as sitting in a chair, working on the laptop, or other computer keyboard. Here are a few possible questions to get you started.
- Where are your hands when not on the keyboard?
- Are you leaning in, or away?
- Do you cross your legs?
- Crane your neck?
- Arch your back?
- Tap your finger on the mouse?
- Use the dog as a footrest?
- Lift the cat off the keyboard?
- Roll your eyes?
Write out what you are physically doing, making a conscious effort to write all the steps you take. The first time I tried this I was shocked at how many little steps are involved in doing even simple tasks. Weave these descriptions into your manuscripts to help your characters come alive.
Other Body Language Recommendations
Make a list of the emotions your main characters exhibit along with the accompanying body language. Think about how your main characters move and react. How does your antagonist look when she is amused? What body language does your protagonist use when angered?
Avoid repetitive gestures.
Repeating gestures can be annoying. Certainly, it feels forced. Not every character should clench their fists or waggle their eyebrows. One character can habitually use the same gesture now and then, but not everyone. (Although thinking about a town full of people waggling their eyebrows makes me chuckle.)
Use vivid action verbs.
Choosing the right verb helps express the emotion you want to convey. For example, there are many ways to walk and each alternative verb implies an emotion. We can:
- stride into a room
- sashay down the boardwalk
- lumber across the floor.
Each of the three verbs is a form of walking, all with different nuances. Each paints a distinct picture.
For dialogue tags, said is never wrong. Unfortunately, I find myself using smile, laugh, and nod. My current Work In Progress had a whole lot of nodding going on. After someone brought this to my attention, I did a "nod search" on my Word document and was appalled by the many cheerful yellow highlights.
Wise words from my editor about empty words and gestures. (Those are pauses between lines of dialogue that don’t advance a scene or characterize.) She said, “If you point something out by putting it down on the page, it needs a reason to be there. Your job during your editing phase is to second guess every image you put down on the page and make sure it’s clearly what you mean.”
Too many descriptors make readers focus on the details instead of the feelings you want them to experience. Or worse, it gives readers a chance to trip on the details and get pulled out of the story. Meaningless details interrupt the flow.
As with all else in writing, put just enough body language in your prose to get your point across.
- For a great list of body language phrases, see Sharla Rae's post.
- Margie Lawson also gave us tips on writing FRESH body language.
Do you struggle with writing effective body language? Do you have a gesture like nodding that you overuse? Share your body language tips and questions with us down in the comments!
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Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Work In Progress, The Hobo Code, is YA historical fiction.