May 20th, 2020

A Look at Body Language in Writing

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

Showing Emotion

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.”

Don’t overdo.

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.

Further reading:

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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About Ellen



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.

Find her at http://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.

Image by Ri Butov from Pixabay

18 responses to “A Look at Body Language in Writing”

  1. barbaralinnprobst says:

    Such a great topic! I often find myself getting up and acting out a scene when I'm writing so I can know what the movements and sensations are! I also struggle with finding ways to convey body language that are concise and accessible, but not over-used. My characters always seem to shrug, nod, and raise their eyebrows LOL. Thank goodness for that "search" box that shows me how often they do that! On the other hand, sometimes those "standard" words are just fine because they get the job done without drawing attention to themselves. Being too creative can break the flow of the scene. Another aspect of our craft that requires a balancing act!

    • ecellenb says:

      Being too "flowery" can definitely pull me out of the story I'm reading.

      Acting out the scenes makes a big difference!

  2. Terry Odell says:

    Smiling, shrugging, and nodding are on my hit list for my first editing pass.

    • ecellenb says:

      Our eldest daughter's Freshman year English teacher gave her class a list of forbidden words. This made writing more difficult, but seriously improved her writing.

      Hit list! The perfect term.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      My characters smile all over the place as well. That find feature is humbling.

  3. amreade says:

    Excellent post. I find that my cozy characters roll their eyes and shrug, whereas my Gothic characters glance nervously and have racing hearts. And even nonverbal cues that might look the same--I'm thinking smiling and grinning--have different connotations depending on which word we use.

    I love The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. It really gets me thinking about all the different ways we express our emotions and it's a treasure trove for writers who need new words to describe how a character is thinking or feeling.

    Thanks for the great post!

  4. When we say, "show not tell" body language is definitely a HUGE part of that.

  5. ecellenb says:

    Amy, thank you for your recommendation. I'll check out The Emotional Thesaurus.

    It's interesting to note the different uses of body language in various genres. I'm glad you brought that up.

  6. Cindi Noble says:

    Sometimes, if I'm trying to vary action tags, I'll give characters an object, like a pencil, to tap, throw, or doodle with, depending on emotion. Or, they might be doing a task in a location but they'll be stomping around the room and talking or slamming drawers if angry. If sad or reflective, maybe they're sitting and twisting their coffee cup rather than drinking, etc. It's interesting to see how other authors do this.

  7. Ellen Buikema says:

    I enjoy seeing how other writers use body language to express emotions. Reading other's work shows us different directions to go. Currently I'm reading a SciFi novel. The author did extensive research and wove that into her book. One of the characters has significant bodily damage and uses an exoskeleton, making for unusual body language.

  8. jamesr403 says:

    Thanks, Ellen, great post. It made me think of my WIP and without even looking back at the ms I am sure I have overused "shrug." Something to look out for. Oh, well. I'll keep my eyes open on the next pass.
    All kidding aside, thanks again.

  9. ecellenb says:

    I'm glad the post is helpful, James! I think we all have our pet words. Thank goodness for word search, however ghastly cheerful.

  10. Kris Maze says:

    Thank you for the examples of showing the emotions through body language. We convey emotion and thoughts subconsciously in real life and it makes sense for our readers to experience this in our writing. It makes me want to people watch for research!

  11. dholcomb1 says:

    I'm sure I do, I can't think of one off hand. I try to search for overuse words.

    I did notice a friend using "shimmied her shoulders" in a book several times recently. It didn't fit the character. I don't think she was using the right word for the action she wanted.
    denise

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