Being a Better Writer: Body Language

How do you show that a character is angry? Or nervous? How do you show that two characters are not on the best of terms with one another while they are on decent standing with another member of their group? Or that one of them is nervous? Jumpy?

Now, note my usage of show in the questions above. I didn’t ask how a writer could tell a reader of any of those things. No, I asked how they could show them. Once more, we come back to the old show versus tell discussion, except this time, I don’t want to focus as much on the mechanics of showing versus tell as I do on one small, simple question: How do you show a character being angry, nervous, or upset without simply telling the reader? How do you get those emotions across without simply pointing out to the reader that “Samantha was angry” or using the dreaded “ly” adverb? Especially if we’re writing from a perspective that isn’t the focal point of the emotion we want to get across?

Which is why today, we’re going to talk about body language in our writing. This might test our observational skills a little (after all, how often do you just watch conversation?), as well as our understanding of social graces and signals. And we’re going to look at what goes into a silent conversation.

Right, let’s start with what I meant by that last, italicized phrase. Have you ever been in a position where you’re angry or upset with someone, but for whatever reason, you’re not allowed to put a voice to such a feeling? You can’t say it, you can’t talk about it, and there is no current way to address it. Your feelings remain unsaid. However, the individual that you are upset with likely knows how you’re feeling—or at least a rough approximation of your current mood.

How? Simple. Humans are social creatures, and our ability to express ourselves is not nearly so limited as to be confined only to spoken or written word. From day one, each one of us is exposed to social cues for joy, sadness, disappointment, anger, and a whole host of other emotions that are expressed entirely through little more than facial ticks, positions, and muscle movements. We then carry these even further, adding to them additional social cues that we pick up as we age. For example, if you are speaking with someone and ask them a question, what does it mean when they shrug their shoulders?

Those of us where that social signal is commonly used immediately recognize this as a form of acknowledged lack of understanding—effectively saying “I don’t know” in some form. Lifting of one eyebrow can be seen as being skeptical of something said, while turning one or both corners of our mouths upward or downward can signify being happy or sad, respectively.

How important are these social cues? Incredibly important. We can build entire opinions of individuals before they even open their mouths to speak, based simply on things like stance, hand and arm position, and facial cues. Much of our interaction with those around us is as much physical as it is spoken, based off of these cues. To give you an idea of how much, look at animated features—especially modern, CG animations over the last ten years. I recently came across a group of animators and dedicated animation fans discussing the movie Zootopia‘s use of facial animation compared to prior CG films, and they were talking about the close attention to detail the film provided. It was all little things, small stuff like character’s noses or ears twitching (these are anthropomorphic animal characters, after all) or tiny, subtle movements of their eyes or lips. But the point of this comparing to earlier films by even the same studio (Disney) and pointing out how these very small social cues made for a much better experience: Despite being anthropomorphic animal characters, the cast from Zootopia felt more human than ever … in part because of the ability to animate all these small social cues that we’ve come to expect in the real world. It made the characters feel more human.

And yet … despite how important these cues are, despite how valuable body language is to many of us on an hourly basis … many young writers miss it entirely. They fall into the trap of simple presentation, of telling a reader rather than showing them. Which in turn, leads us back to the collection of questions that I kicked off today’s post with: how do we show that a character is angry, nervous, excited, or scared, especially if they aren’t the viewpoint character?

The answer is to show their body language. Make use of the power of social cues! A character can notice narrowing of the eyes, the crossing of arms, or the relaxed, uncaring slouch of another individual. We see, use, and interact with such powerful social constructs on a daily basis, and yet many writers omit them from their work, relying only on base observations and character dialogue to present their scene to the reader. But use of body language can bring a scene to life in a far more active, engrossing way than a simple declaration.

But—and here’s the real gem as for why it’s better than a simple line of dialogue—it can actually do more than its counterpart would. Let’s look at an example of a scene of a couple having a discussion, first without body language and then with, and see what new dimensions exploring body language brings us.

Without body language first:

“No,” Kim said. “For the last time, I don’t think we can afford it.” She was beginning to look upset, and Josh could understand. After all, he’d been feeling similar for the last ten minutes as their debate had bounced back and forth.

“Look,” he said. “You’re not looking at the numbers. If we cut the cable, we can make it work. We hardly watch it anymore. It’s all just ads anyway.”

You hardly watch it anymore,” Kim replied. “I still do.”

“You can watch those shows on your computer,” he said back, trying to keep his voice in check.

“In a computer chair. Or at the kitchen table.” She was definitely upset now, though from her reaction, he wasn’t sure it was about the cable bill. “Not from the comfort of a couch we bought just to watch TV together.”

Right. A little crude, but it gets the point across. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t make it better. Let’s see what happens if we drop the more “tell” narration and add in some body language:

“No,” Kim said, shaking her head. “For the last time, I don’t think we can afford it.” She sat back, crossing her arms across her chest as she stared at him, a scowl on her face. It was almost a mirror of his own position—which was fair, considering the way their debate had bounced back and forth between them for the last ten minutes.

“Look,” he said, spreading his hands as he leaned forward. “You’re not looking at the numbers. If we cut the cable, we can make it work. We hardly watch it anymore. It’s all just ads anyway.”

You hardly watch it anymore,”Kim replied, glaring at him. “I still do.”

“You can watch those shows on your computer,” he said back, the muscles in his hands tensing. He gave both of them a slow roll, clenching them into fists before releasing and trying not to let the stress behind the motion creep into his voice.

“In a computer chair. Or at the kitchen table.” Kim leaned forward, her eyes boring into his. “Not from the comfort of a couch we bought just to watch TV together.”

Okay, now both of these are fast, crude work, but compare the two. How much more in character does the second one feel as a result of letting the character’s body language shine through? In the first example we have to rely on the viewpoint character telling us, via narration, what he believes is going on.

In the second piece, however, we don’t need to be told, as we can read the social cues and then infer what’s happening and what the characters are feeling on our own. We already know what crossed arms in this kind of conversation mean (the scowl is even easier). But it makes the characters come to life! Rather than just being marionettes who pass dialogue back and forth, they’ve suddenly become individuals with action and movement to them … Movement that a reader can visualize and draw their own conclusions from. We don’t need Josh to tell us that Kim is upset—we can see it ourselves.

But you might have noticed there’s another facet to the second piece that showing their body language brought to it. It’s more in depth about things. It’s not specifically that it’s longer—though it is—but that in writing out the character’s actions, I had to tie them into what before had been straight statements, building on the prose. For example, in the first example, we have the line “trying to keep his voice in check.” Which isn’t bad at all; it tells the reader exactly what they need to know about Josh’s speaking here. But then we look at the second version. We have “the muscles in his hands tensing” followed by this rewrite of the first version’s mention of voice, building off of his hand’s movement: He gave both of them a slow roll, clenching them into fists before releasing and trying not to let the stress behind the motion creep into his voice.

Much more evocative, not just in terms of character but also in imagery. Not only do we have a clear picture of what’s taking place, but there’s a connection made between what the character is doing and his voice … something many of us can relate to.

This is why showing body language can be such a boon for a writer, and why it’s so important that we not forget to include such clues in our work. Not only does it add life to scenes and conversation, it makes for more evocative writing. The interweaving of a character’s body language with action and prose can allow the two to build off of one another, resonate in metaphor or style to draw the reader further in.

But … that’s actually not all, though the reasons given thus far are good. Which should tell you something about how important (and oft-underutilized) body language is. Because body language does more than add life to a scene, it’s also a great tool for character exposition.

What am I referring to here? Well, think about someone you know. Now think about what they look like or act like when they’re scared. Do they shiver? Do they clench their arms around themselves? Or do they stand a little stiffer, a little straighter? Do they react to terror with nervous laughter, or with facial ticks?

All of these things make up part of who they are: Their character. The way we act or react, even in small ways, to the things around us (including other people) tell others about us. Likewise, the body language of the characters we write will allow our readers to make inferences about that character—learn more about them, in other words. In addition to bringing a scene to life, a character’s body language brings them to life, letting our reader build a more accurate (or inaccurate, depending on what you’re going for) picture of that individual.

This works for plot development as well, considering that characters will read into one another’s motives and attitudes the same way that a reader will. What will they make of clenched teeth? A cold shoulder? The old phrase “actions speak louder than words” can make for some really, really good words if you immerse yourself in the social dance that body language can bring.

Pretty cool, huh? By now I think you’re seeing that body language is a tool in the writer’s toolbox that should be coming out almost as regularly as dialogue. It’s simple, it’s evocative, and it’s powerful.

But that’s not all there is to it. Yes, there’s more.

See, there’s one other thing body language can do for our writing, something that it can cover that at the same time also becomes a double-edged sword. It concerns culture.

See, when I ask many of you what a shrug of the shoulders means (going back to the introduction) most of us would agree that it’s a universal signal for “I don’t know,” Except that’s wrong. It’s not universal at all. It’s simply prevalent. Knowing the difference is vital.

What am I getting at? Shrugging, along with almost all other forms of body language, is a cultural creation, not an ingrained one (though there are ingrained motions such as smiling and laughing that are shared across boundaries, and a study of what is and isn’t naturally part of human reaction is an interesting study). What a shrug means to us may mean something completely different to someone from a fantasy world. And  yes, you can capitalize on this for fantasy, as an example to your readers of the culture of a different world.

Now, this gets tricky. We rely on social cues, and having to relearn all of them can be confusing and disorienting. Hence why even otherwise period-accurate books and films will still use modern conventions of body language (just as they will often use more modern turns of phrase): We’re used to them. Having to relearn everything can be a little off-putting or tedious.

But even so, using or highlighting just a few slight social differences can be, in the right setting, an effective way to highlight the differences between the reader and the world you’re setting up for them to experience. For example, in the Unusual Events short story For Glory I used this technique to draw attention to the fact that Mathoni’s culture is not our own when rather than shrug, one of the primary character’s fellows lifts both his eyebrows at once in a display of indifference. It’s a small thing, but it serves to highlight that this culture is not one the reader knows. Even if they don’t consciously acknowledge it, it serves to draw them further into the world, to say “Hey, this isn’t the world you know” in a small but effective way.

Now, this also comes with a cautionary warning: Body language cues are not the same throughout cultures, and while this can be an effective tool to show a world, it can also be a distraction if some of your audience come from a culture where certain cues have different meanings or context. For instance, in many of my books, characters tend to make a lot of eye contact when speaking with one another. However, this is a western cultural trend; there eye contact is okay. Readers based in that culture, for example, found no issue with Anna’s character from Colony making constant eye contact with everyone she meets. It’s part of who she is, and demonstrates her take-charge, slightly confrontational, forward nature.

However, such an action is unwelcome or even outright offensive in other cultures. A reader of Colony from the Middle-East or Asia, for example, would read a completely different meaning in Anna’s (or many of the other characters) constant eye contact, because such an action can be outright offensive or considered insulting and aggressive.

What I’m saying is that you need to write to your audience a bit. If you’re going to write a book set in 1500s Japan, do not simply go with the standard social cues from wherever you are from (a lot of authors make this mistake). Do some research and learn what the period-appropriate cues are, and understand which ones you may need to reasonably alter for a modern audience … and what ones you should not make the mistake of ignoring. By mistaking social cues, you may accidentally completely mislabel a character for your readers, breaking their immersion or even the whole story when readers encounter this “out of character” behavior.

So, to sum up: Body language is a powerful tool in the writer’s toolbox that is oft ignored by many young writers (or even experienced ones). It allows a writer to show emotion and personality in a manner that flows well with prose, rather than telling a reader directly, and also allows things to develop much more organically. In addition to serving as a development tool for a character, it can also serve to develop the world the story is set in—though a writer should always take care that if they’re writing in a pre-established world, such as a real-world setting, that they educate themselves on what social cues might be different, as to not accidentally change the meaning of a character or a cue.

All said, however, even with that risk, body language is a tool that should leave your toolbox often. Use it.

And let those characters live.


2 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Body Language

  1. Body language is crucial, I agree. However, when I write, I don’t like to just describe the body language. That always feels awkward to me. So instead I focus on characters noticing the body language of other characters and then letting them observe and determine the emotions based on that. It gives me some cool layered characterization, I think.


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