Body Language in Writing

Body language is a powerful means of communication because most human communication is nonverbal. We meet another person's eyes, or we look away. When we're nervous we tap our fingers, bounce our legs, or fidget with nearby objects. Our tone of voice supports what we're saying or contradicts it.

Weaving the details of nonverbal communication into dialogue adds texture to the conversation and provides fodder for action bumps, helping to weed out attribution tags. Such details also help to establish the mood, which cuts down on the dialogue tricks you need to communicate with the reader.

Nonverbal cues can deepen the characterization, as well. Refusing to shake someone's hand or return a gesture of friendship when one is expected, puts the other person off balance. They'll react according to their own nature, but the reader will get hints at each of their personalities and their relationship. It makes a good tell.

But how well do these cues come through in the reading? We're used to seeing or hearing them, so how do they translate to the written, or read, word? After all, no matter how many nonverbal cues we work into a story, they're just extra words if what we're trying to communicate doesn't come through to the reader.

Some nonverbal cues come through just fine. For instance, someone slamming their first down on a table. It's something we've seen often, possibly done ourselves. It's emphatic and there's no doubt as to its meaning, even if it may require further dialogue or cues to communicate the exact emotions.

The subtler cues can get overlooked, but I don't think that matters. Even if they don't stay in the mind, I think they contribute to the reader's impression of the mood, the level of tension, etc. They have a similar impact to the words that we choose. Using verbs that work with the context of the action they're describing helps to build an image for the reader. I think that subtle nonverbal cues do the same.

But because they are subtle, they're more likely to be dismissed, or to fail to communicate their point. Knowing when to use larger cues and when the subtle will be more useful sometimes requires tinkering and critique or reader feedback, but switching between the subtle and the not so subtle keeps things from becoming stiff or overwrought.

Of course, too many action tags and too much body language can lead to the characters hopping around in their seats trying to convey things to the reader. As with everything, it's about striking that balance. Critique really helps with that, too!

So how do you deal with body language when you're writing? How much do you describe and how much do you leave to the imagination?


Anonymous said…
I like a few, specific details woven in. Too much descriptive detail and I start to lose focus on what, well, is supposed to be the focus. I don't need EVERY detail described. I'm especially fond of subtle clues.

(An example: in the BBC miniseries, Jekyll, there is a scene where Jackman (the good doctor, played by James Nesbitt) is discussing the origins of the original Jekyll/Hyde with a private investigator. Jackman has expressed (quietly) his fear that Hyde will take over him and he won't know how to stop it. He doesn't want to become a monster. When the PI tells him that, in the Stevenson book, the titular character died "as Hyde", Jackman's only reaction is to slowly close his eyes.

The amount of emotion and character conveyed in that one bit of body language is impressive. (The series works, IMO, because Nesbitt is amazing in his dual role.) You can see the restrained despair, but also the coming to terms of possibilities and an understated determination to keep fighting this curse.)

This may be branch-off from my preference for understatement, negative space, subtly, also restrained emotional reactions, etc.

(Earlier seasons of the TV show Criminal Minds also has a ton of fantastically subtle and deadpan performances that are gripping. I've not seen much past the end of S4, thus the qualifier of 'earlier' seasons. ;))

When writing, of course, one has to take into account the characters and personalities and the behavioral ways they would react. Some characters are over-dramatic; some are painfully restrained and subtle; some are a mix of ranges, some only have a few ways of reacting, some are born actors and manipulators, etc.

But in general, I try to convey as much as possible with as little detail as possible--trying to find specific body language cues and reactions. It's an area I struggle with a lot (because, for me, 'subtle' has a tendency to crash into 'flat' because there's a delicate balance to maintain that I often fail at). Specifics, definitely, are important in achieving that.

Great topic, btw.
Marion Sipe said…
One of my favorite examples is in a fairly early (as these things go :D) Law and Order episode. One of the characters (Adam Schiff) is watching as his wife dies in the hospital and he's not a particularly emotional person. You hear the heart monitor go flat and he just sucks in a breath and makes this tiny little sound. That's all the reaction he has, but it's all the more powerful because of that.

Oh, I love Criminal Minds! They do some very subtle things, both with the characters and in using visuals, audibles and the setting itself. I'm watching the current season, but it usually takes me a second viewing before I consciously pick up on a lot of their cues. You gotta love that! Or at least, I do. :D

Oh, yes, if the body language doesn't suit the character it can make the whole thing read badly and feel disconnected. I'd rather have no body language details than have ones that don't match with the character.

I like to highlight one specific bit of body language. Something the character does with their hands or a facial expression they use, a twitch, something. While I mix in other cues whenever I can, I use that one cue when I really need the reader to see that something isn't right or to indicate the character is reacting emotionally. It doesn't always work out, but with help from critters, I think I'm getting a bit better at it. :D

Thanks! I'm glad you've enjoyed it. Great comment!
Tin Cup said…
Loved the blog. One of the things I struggle with at times is when or when not to use body language in a scene, whether it be a conversation or a character sitting alone and allowing the body language to convey what is going on inside of them.

I always admire a well written scene that can take the reader to a destination and allow them to feel the scene and have a feeling for what is happening, all based on description.

Glad I stumbled upon your blog! Feel free to stop by mine anytime. Just started it recently and so far it's been a lot of fun.
Chrystalla said…
Great post, Mary! It really depends a lot on the character, doesn't it - how flamboyant or quiet they are. But I agree that small details sometimes tell a lot.
Marion Sipe said…
@Tin Cup - Thank you! It can be troublesome, figuring out when to use body language. I find that critique helps a lot, letting me know when it works and when it just seems unnecessary.

I like to use body language to convey emotions that characters might not feel they can express, whether because of the company they're in or because they're trying to keep it to themselves.

I'll definitely stop by!

@Chrystalla - Thanks! I agree, each character should have their own forms of nonverbal communication. If all the characters communicate in the same way, it loses all impact and doesn't really tell anything.
Angela Ackerman said…
Nice post. I think actions are so important, especially when they are tailored to the character in a specific way that makes the expression 'their own.' And I agree that sometimes this can be overdone (merc's comment) and it gets lost or the reader skims. Usually one or two strong pieces of showing through body language is all that is ever needed--less is often more.

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse
Marion Sipe said…
Oh, I agree. Body language has to be a true representation of the character, otherwise it just feels tacked on.

Popular Posts