by Margie Lawson
Everyone needs to become an expert on body language. Misreading body language can lead to disgrace, disaster, and divorce.
How well do you read body language?
Take the 10 Point Quiz I created and find out!
Did you take the quiz?
If not – TAKE THE QUIZ NOW.
You really took it this time. Right?
Ready for those answers?
1. Ninety-three percent of communication is nonverbal. T F
It’s a monstrous percentage, which is why people should monitor their nonverbals. Let’s look at the number one phobia in the U.S., public speaking.
If you’re nervous you may display a cluster of anxiety flags, e.g., rolling in lips, tightening mouth, evasive eye contact, halting gait, soft voice, modulated voice tones.
If your anxiety escalates, your nonverbals become more pronounced: collapsed chest, shoulders forward, respiration rapid and shallow, pupils dilated, voice pitched high, face tight.
Project more confident body language, and you’ll feel more confident. People will react positively to the new, confident you.
Writers almost always need more subtext on their pages. Subtext shares the psychological messages behind body language.
How do you get subtext on the page?
Facial expressions. Dialogue cues. Spatial cues. Gestures.
2. If people say the right words, it doesn’t matter how they say them. T F
An easy one. Vocal cues carry qualifying messages that support or discount the words. Americans are pros at sarcasm. Watch your inflection, rate of speech, volume, and tone. Be sure your vocal cues support your message—unless you’re telling a joke.
On the page, dialogue cues carry that all-critical subtext.
Don’t write overused, carry-no-power, blah-de-blah-blah dialogue tags. Share subtext and write fresh.
Before: “Calm down,” he said in a hard voice.
After Deep Editing: “Chill. Out.” His voice was don’t-mess-with-me mean.
My voice had an unwavering, unyielding, refusing-to-be-cross-examined-by-Jacqui tone.
I can barely hear Lily now. She’s whispering softer than I am, probably close to tears, and I should try for comforting, but I’m barely holding down a scream.
Romily Bernard could have just written the first sentence and moved on with her story.
Look how much more interest and power she put on the page. Impressive.
3. Some people wait a few seconds before showing a nonverbal response. T F
Nonverbal communication is continuous. It’s on-going. It never stops.
Pauses and hesitations are not your friend on the page. Why? Nothing happens. And nothing happening is not interesting.
Writers share what happens in real life. We pause. We hesitate.
But body language is happening then. Make your scenes stronger. Nix the pause and get fresh body language on the page.
Body language is interesting if it’s written in a fresh way. And it carries psychological power too.
Rebecca Rivard could have had her POV character pause in the following example. But she wrote this fresh amplified body language piece instead.
I touched the switchblade in my pocket for good luck and loosened my muscles—jaw, neck, shoulders, fingers. Tension distracted you. It wasted energy, added to your mental strain. When you were tense, you made mistakes.
And mistakes could get you killed.
4. Body language can only be interpreted one way. T F
An easy answer, with complex levels of application. Cognitively, people know there are multiple interpretations. Yet people interpret body language at a subconscious level and act on those feelings.
Let’s imagine a wife asks her husband to go with her to visit her mother, and in the next nanosecond his gaze shifts away and back, he sighs, and his mouth tightens.
The wife reads his body language, assumes her husband doesn’t want to go, and reacts before he can say anything.
She says, “Forget it. I’ll go without you.” Her tone is sharp enough to cut a diamond.
Her body language—stiff posture, flashing eyes, harsh tone—surprise her husband. He stares at her, his mouth open (confused) or closed tight (mad).
She turns, grabs the keys, and leaves.
The husband stands there wondering what the heck happened.
I know what happened.
Her question, asking him to go with her, triggered a thought. He remembered that the last time he drove the car it vibrated, and he wondered if the tires needed to be balanced. His split-second body language—shifting gaze, a sigh, and his mouth tightening—stemmed from thoughts about the tires.
The wife thought his body language communicated he didn’t want to go with her to visit her mother.
He has no idea why she got angry and left.
Situations like that play out too frequently with couples, friends, and coworkers.
People misinterpret nuances of body language and react. Misreading body language creates conflict.
Having characters misread body language is an easy way to get more tension on your pages and complicate your scenes. Smart and fun too.
5. People subconsciously mirror nonverbal behavior of others. T F
When you’re in a restaurant, watch couples and friends. If they like each other, they both lean forward seemingly at the same time. One leads by a nanosecond. They may reach for their beverages and drink at the same time. They mirror posture, gestures, facial expressions, voice patterns. Their body language looks choreographed.
You could slip mirroring in your book a couple of times. It’s a universal truth. And universal truths cement readers in the POV character’s skin.
6. If the words and body language contradict each other, the listener believes the body language. T F
When the words are incongruent with the body language and/or how the dialogue is delivered, people always believe the nonverbals.
Every book needs body language that shows the incongruence on the face, or between facial expressions and dialogue cues, or between a face or voice and a visceral response.
You need tension on the page. Write this incongruence and share it in a fresh way.
Jacqui’s smile was encouraging, but her eyes revealed her doubts.
“You’re checking my stuff?” I ask, and I sound good. I’m all light and unimpressed even though my insides are splintering.
“Thank you, Mr. Albie.” I let my tone express exactly where I wished he’d stick his chivalrous gesture.
The reader gets the incongruence in all those examples. Smart writing!
7. Facial expressions convey 85% of the nonverbal message. T F
Facial expressions are key, but vocal cues (what I call dialogue cues on the page), posture, movements, spatial relationships, all contribute to the nonverbal message.
Depending on the research, faces carry 30 to 50% of the nonverbals.
Write more facial expressions and write them fresh!
Her expression was like the pages of the screenplay I never wrote. Blank with a heavy shot of I don’t care.
I forced a small smile. The one reserved for funerals and unexpected encounters with the inspiration of every fantasy I ever had.
8. People can cover up their emotions by keeping their face blank. T F
Faces are never blank. Lips twitch. Nostrils flare. Eyes narrow or widen almost imperceptibly. Mouths barely open or barely tighten. Pupils dilate. Tips of tongues show when people lick lips.
To a kinesics specialist, these are all diagnostic indicators. To a writer, these are cues to write what I call flicker-face emotions.
1. Her eyes meet mine for a fraction of a second, and something I can’t read flits through them.
2. Hope lights up her face, and then, like a flickering candle, it dies.
Flicker-face emotions are fun to write. Dig in. Make them carry power.
9. Lips carry more nonverbal messages than eyes. T F
The lips do more, convey more emotion. Watch people’s mouths. You’ll have more insight into their reactions and decisions.
Writers need to remember, an open mouth, even barely open, usually means the person is thinking about it, and they may be open to that idea. A closed mouth usually means no way.
You’d write the mouth, then you might share the POV character’s interpretation. What that means to them.
Picture a teenager asking to use the car. And they see this look: Dad’s mouth went tight, and I knew I’d never get the car.
I shared how the POV character interpreted that facial expression. I shared what I call "impact on the POV character."
10. When anxious, you touch your face more often. T F
Self-touch behaviors increase when people are anxious. They touch their faces (cheek, eyebrow, lip, nose, ear), or near their face (throat, jaw, back of neck, behind ear, hair), as well as their hands and arms.
Self-touch behaviors accelerate when anxiety is high. They are body language polygraphs.
When people are in a job interview, when suspects are interrogated, when a guy proposes to his gal, self-touch behaviors significantly increase. The person who’s anxious may touch their face, throat, hand, or arm every 10 to 20 seconds, sometimes every couple of seconds, unaware of their self-touch behavior.
More good info for writing characters who are anxious or scared. Just don’t overdo those self-touch behaviors.
Did you make a 100? 90? 80?
Body language is fascinating in real life and on the page.
IN REAL LIFE you get to monitor and moderate your body language when you’re pitching to agents and editors, interacting with booksellers, doing a book signing, being on a panel, presenting a workshop or webinar or master class.
ON THE PAGE you get to explore the full range of body language, and challenge yourself to write it fresh, fresh, fresh! Look at the power you have with body language. You can use faces and voices to add tension, complicate scenes, and drive plot points too.
Dig for the truth. Share the tension. Write those faces and voices in fresh ways.
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Take my Writing Body Language and Dialogue Cues Like a Psychologist class. It starts tomorrow, June 1. Don’t miss out!
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Margie Lawson left a career in psychology to focus on another passion—helping writers make their stories, characters, and words strong. Using a psychologically-based, deep-editing approach, Margie teaches writers how to bring emotion to the page. Emotion equals power. Power grabs readers and holds onto them until the end. Hundreds of Margie grads have gone on to win awards, find agents, sign with publishers, and hit bestseller lists.
An international presenter, Margie has taught over 150 full-day master classes in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and France, as well as multi-day intensives on cruise ships in the Caribbean. Pre-COVID, she taught 5-day Immersion Master Classes across the U.S. and Canada and in seven cities in Australia too.
COVID Update: Immersion Master Classes are now virtual, taught through Zoom. Virtual Immersion classes are limited to six writers. They're two days long—and as always, writers get one on one deep editing with Margie.
She also founded Lawson Writer's Academy, where you’ll find over 30 instructors teaching online courses through her website. To learn more, and sign up for Margie’s newsletter, visit www.margielawson.com.
I’m so proud of all the smart classes we offer writers. Check out our powerful line-up for June!
I’d love to cyber-meet you! Drop by my monthly “Get Happy with Margie” Open House, Tuesday, June 15, 5:00 – 7:00 p.m. Mountain Time.
Thank you again. See you in the comments section!
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