Show, Don’t Tell, using Body Language

Non-verbal communication makes up the majority of how we express ourselves.  So easy in person.  Such a different beast when trying to make a story come to life on two dimensional pages. 

Body language is intended to communicate emotion in the story without TELLING the emotion.  During my reading of my rough draft and in my first rewrite, I find myself relying on some of the same body language over and over.  I am not sure how many times my characters shrug, nod, furrow their brow, and purse their lips.  SOMEBODY HELP ME!

Learning to write is certainly a steep curve!

Where to turn to first? Well, body language is about the body.  So let’s begin by thinking about body parts and what they can do.  Hair: bounces, falls in the eyes.  Eyebrows: lift, squeeze together, arch.  Lips: purse, curl, press, whistle, pucker.  Shoulders: sag, shrug, raise up to the ear.  Hands: clench, fidget, fold, tap.  Feet: stomp, tap, stand on tippy-toe, shuffle.  What about knees? ears? chest? arms? nose? neck? eyes? stomach? toes?

What else? Well, bodies move.  What are some common movements?  (Stories need to keep the action, so how can we keep our characters moving in non-redundant ways?) walk, sit, look, run.  A thesaurus is a good place to start, right?  But what about what movement implies?  A lean in – we are engaged, a step back – we are considering the big picture when making a decision, doodling – we are thinking, a hand to the forehead – we have forgotten something, annoyed with ourselves.

Writers are said to be voracious readers, keen observers, and compulsive writers.  So, alas, I must assign homework because I am surely not the expert on body language.  Ah! Dang! I said homework!

1.  Take your favorite book down from the shelf.  Skim for use of body language.  Record the author’s words and your incites in your journal.

  • “Papa suddenly crossed the room and put his arms around them both. He kissed the top of each head. . .” – nurturing, reassuring, parental, security
  • “The street soldiers were often young, sometimes ill at ease, and Annemarie remembered how the Giraffe had, for a moment let his harsh pose slip and had smiled at Kirsti.” – a pose can slip, someone can momentarily reveal their true self before wearing their mask once again.
  • “Mama put a hand on Papa’s arm.”  – concern, protective
  • “Annemarie relaxed her clenched fingers of her right hand, which still clutched Ellen’s necklace.  She looked down, and saw that she had imprinted the Star of David into her palm.”  Yes!  SO GOOD!  The picture is painted and I can sense how completely petrified Annemarie was and the relief she now feels.  Bonus- GREAT VERBS: clench, clutch, imprint!

2.  Go on a field trip.  Hooray!  Go to your favorite coffee house, mall, or to be really effective, somewhere similar to a scene in your book.  OBSERVE and RECORD body language.  What is it telling you?  If you can hear the dialogue, how does the body language extend the meaning of the words?

3.  Watch TV! (Didn’t you love it when the teacher said you could watch tv for homework, but then the let down, “Watch the State of the Union.”) Here I am telling you to watch “Lie to Me.”  It is a show that specializes on analyzing body language, especially facial.  Or watch a movie.  I am thinking about watching “Pursuit of Happiness” because my MC is always on the go.  Record the body language that stands out to you and what it communicates.

Sorry to have to give homework, but I have to do it too!  Think about how much our writing will improve if we actually do these things!

So Read! Observe! and Write!

Next time: Effective Dialogue

Til then, Enjoy Playing With Words

Bonus: Three websites I found (though there are certainly more out there).

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