On Body Language

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Body language, also known as nonverbal communication, is an enormous part of how we interpret the people we interact with. Often it contributes to 60 or 65% of everyday interpersonal communication.* It includes facial expressions, posture, gestures, and physical movement. Some we can consciously control and try to use to our advantage (we’ve all heard not to cross our arms at an interview as it makes us seem stand-offish and unsure/uncomfortable) others are controlled by our limbic system and our reactions are subconscious. We are constantly using our body to communicate–even when we attempt not to, the lack of gesticulation as we attempt to control our bodies is, in fact, a tell of its own.

So if body language is such a huge part of communication, why is it in our writing we often fall back on the same, very simple expressions and gestures such as a smile or a clenched fist? (not that these aren’t appropriate at times, but they should not be our only go-to reactions and our non-verbal vocabulary should be larger than just cliche expressions.–even if they are cliche because they are so true to life.) What other ways can we think of to express happiness? Anger? Excitement? What about deception?

We use a lot of facial expressions and maybe some hand gestures, but we shouldn’t forget that insight into what a person is thinking can be read in many parts of the body. For instance, let’s look at feet simply because they’re not the first thing that comes mind:

What would it be telling you if I said the character lifted on her toes to lean closer? How about if she bounced on her toes? Tapped them? Scrapped one toe of her shoe in the dirt without meeting my gaze? Had one foot turned away as if she were already halfway out the door? (Okay, I’m cheating with the last one as I’m interpreting it through the viewpoint, and these aren’t the most original, but you get the point.)

So where do we mine for non-verbal communication ticks, gestures, postures, expressions, and whatnot? Well, if we’re conscious enough of ourselves, we can try to pick out our own, but we’re unlikely to be able to do this when we’re truly engaged or under stress. The best way is people watching.

Go somewhere public, take a notebook, and watch the actions and reactions of the people around you. Watch the way couples act. Do they angle their bodies toward each other? Are their hands very close, but not yet touching. Is she staring at her food with her purse clutched in her lap? How about the group of teenagers in the corner? Can you pick out their roles in the group by the way they hold themselves? And the guy over there alone. Does he look up every time someone walks past? Or is he leaning back in his chair, one ankle over his knee as he scans the screen of his phone? I used to love going to meetings at work because it was the perfect opportunity to observe people. Are people engaged or bored? Their body language will tell you.

So, to add a layer of realism and give your reader a better connection to the story, layer in more body language to help communicate the thoughts and emotions of your characters. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, little tells that clue the reader in work most of the time (after all, we subconsciously interpret most of the body language we encounter). Other times you can make smaller gestures more important by adding weight to them through expanded description.  Such as if you wanted to show a small change in the way an antagonistic character acts toward the viewpoint character  and her subsequent reaction: (and this has been used many times and is likely on the cliche side, but you get the point) “The smile he gave her was a good smile that went all the way to his eyes, softening the hard edges of his face so that he looked younger, more innocent.” Of course our work would become very purple if  every gesture was given a lot of extra description but certain non-verbals will warrant that extra attention, depending on the story.

Okay, I’m going to wrap this up there because I’m late posting this and I have a deadline looming ominously close, but I’d love if you guys would share some non-verbals you’ve observed or  some of your favorite body language descriptions from books you’ve read.

Have a great Thursday everyone!

(*WHAT EVERY BODY IS SAYING- Joe Navarro)

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23 comments to On Body Language

  • sagablessed

    “Wicce,” Footman said when he spotted the Tree-of-Life hanging around Taylor’s neck.
    “Druid,” he corrected automatically. Too many people called him a Witch, and it was simply not true. There was a big difference. As his gentle hand covered the medallion, the familiar gesture loosened his shoulders.

    Does that count?

  • Ooh. In my new WIP, my main character is a massage therapist. Since I see an RMT regularly and also have a sister studying to become one, I realized that meant that she was going to be aware of muscles and how people hold themselves. I even confirmed this with my RMT, who agreed that she *notices* how people are standing, the positions of their shoulders and arms, whether they’re walking with a tilt or always putting weight on one foot rather than the other. Do they hold themselves open or closed, guarded or relaxed? Where are their hands?

    Examples from the college where I work: the students hunch over their laptops and textbooks, intent. Gathered around a table outside for the freebies the local radio station’s giving out today, they clutch their backpacks and shrink upon themselves, trying to squeeze in for swag and a chance to enter contests. In the coffeeshop lineup, their shoulders are relaxed and their expressions are brighter, as if the promise of a beverage is enough to briefly reduce their stress.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you. This is a great reminder and something I should definitely keep an eye on as I get ready to edit. I feel like I do this *reasonably* well, though, since I’m a pretty tactile person (where I have trouble is in adding in *sounds*, or even a person’s tone of voice). However, I definitely do fall back on my own patterns of motion, and my characters would probably really benefit from some good other-people watching. Thank you for the suggestion.

    Where I’ve had a little bit of fun with body language recently is in the story I want to work on next. The MC has a dog, who of course has to communicate everything non-verbally. I think I can do that and have fun with it because I grew up with dogs, but if it were a horse it would be terrible. I’d be down to tail flicks, whickering, and *maybe* pricked ears – completely cliche and flat.

  • Great post! This is one thing I am awful with, probably because I am not much of a people watcher. Thanks for helping me see an area where I can improve.

  • Sorry. I’m late in today too. For much of the same reasons. Dang deadlines…

    Something I’ve seen in some people who wear glasses. When thinking, some push at the glasses by wrinkling their noses.

    A slowly taken breath might signify tension or anger or surprise.

    Sitting too straight is my new one. Sitting posture is positively declaritive of current emotional state.

  • I like what people do with their hands. Men put theirs in their pockets when they’re waiting; women put theirs on their hips. I also love head movements. Unbelievers tilt their heads down and to the right. Listener’s heads are usually going backwards with their face open to the person talking to them. And pleading always gets a left side head tilt. 🙂

  • Megan B.

    Interesting topic. In my own writing, I try to include gestures and facial expression, but often struggle with avoiding the cliche and obvious. Reading your post just now, I realized why that might be. In real-life and in visual media, these things can be subtle, or noticed unconsciously. In writing, you have to come out and describe the gesture or the expression. Drawing attention to it makes it seem more obvious and exaggerated than it would visually. That’s my theory, anyway.

    You’ve inspired me to watch people more closely and try to find some new, hopefully more subtle, pieces of body language to use in my writing.

  • quillet

    You’re assigning People Watching as homework? Yay! *jumps up and down* That’s one of my favourite things to do when out in public. Seriously, though, I agree that nothing beats observation for learning how people express themselves.

    On the other hand, have you heard of the Emotion Thesaurus? It’s available on Amazon as an e-book (which I haven’t yet bought), but they still have quite a few sample entries available at the Bookshelf Muse. (I’d provide the link, but I don’t know how, sorry!) It lists various mannerisms, gestures etc. to go with different emotions, everything from anger to uncertainty. It’s a great resource, especially when editing, if you find yourself overusing certain physical tags. Personally, I have a terrible tendency to raise my characters’ eyebrows a lot. Even when I don’t use their exact examples, it can spark inspiration for the right body language to suit a particular character.

  • This is definitely something I need to work on. I actually watch people a lot, and a good part of my career has been providing feedback to people on their verbal and non-verbal communication skills, so I do notice expressions, gestures, posture, etc. I just haven’t figured out how to translate that effectively into my written work.

    One of the things I’m working on in my WIP is having my character, who watches and them mimics others as she tries to blend in, really notice nonverbal communication when others are interacting. I’m finding that this is really making me think about minor characters more deeply than I have so far.

  • This is such an important part of writing, particularly for scenes with lots of dialogue. Those physical “tells” if used correctly can keep us from relying on the cliched, overused gestures and expressions. I know that my writing is full of those overused ones — so I really love the idea of going to a mall or something of the sort and watching people. Thanks for the this, Kalayna. And bust of luck with the deadline.

  • I love people watching. I do it at work all the time or if I’m out in a crowded place. I always write the “cliche” body language in the first draft, but when I’m revising I try to replace it with a better physical tell.

    One thing I’ve noticed, if someone is talking (or just finished) and they’re really annoyed they never fully close their lips.

  • Thanks for this! My older books are full of arched eyebrows and sighs, and on my current WIP I’m trying to avoid all these overdone cliches in the first draft. If I let them in the first time, they’ll become part of the voice and I’ll never be able to get rid of them. Also, because it’s alternating close third person I can use my MC’s tells for characterization.

  • Sagablessed, “As his gentle hand covered the medallion, the familiar gesture loosened his shoulders.” would be the line with body language in it. It tells us that he covered the medallion and that his shoulders loosened.

  • Laura, she sounds like a great source to tap for body language ideas!

    Hepseba, Oh, I’d have trouble describing the non-verbals of a horse as well. I hope you have fun with the dog.

    Kevin, Thanks! Glad it was helpful.

    Faith, sitting posture is such a great one that is so easy to forget to use! Thanks for sharing.

    WaitforHim, awesome, thanks for sharing those observations!

  • Razziecat

    This is something that I need to work on. I tend to use facial expressions too much, so observing people’s body language as an exercise is a great idea.I’ll have to try that at work, too. Plenty of drama going on there!

    *Am I the only one hearing Queen’s “Body Language” in my head now? 😉

  • Megan B, yes, describing something does draw more attention to what we are accustomed to reading very quickly and without much thought. The level of detail can be tricky because if we give too much the character appears to be screaming with their body language, but if we give too little information the interaction tends to fall flat. An interesting balance.

    Quillet, I have not heard of the Emotion Thesaurus–I’ll have to look it up. Thanks for the tip!

    SiSi, very interesting about your character. It sounds like a great exercise.

    Thanks David!

    jqtrotter, I’ve not noticed people doing that–I’ll have to look for it!

    Cara, Glad it was helpful!

  • Razzicat, Now I am! LOL

  • HI Kalayna~

    I try to match physical expression with emotion, but too often I find myself repeating. I forget to go people watch to refresh the well. I need to do that more.

  • I’ve been working with putting a lot more physical tells in my latest work, because I feel like it’s one of those things you see in a lot of film noir especially. The physical tells and body language added to the drama and suspense in those films. Course, also gotta make sure you don’t use too much or your characters will start looking like a bunch of jittery Joes in a line up after too much coffee. 😉

    And since you asked:
    As he shifted his balance, I continued, “The fact I’m not down or dead right now makes me wonder if he’s as adamant at seeing me leave as you say. Might be best to find out, hmm?”

    His cheek just under the eye patch twitched, though his deadpan expression never wavered. He took another pull on the cigarette, which I could tell now was laced with something other than tobacco by the smell, and then flicked it away into the alley harder than necessary. He stood there for a moment more, eyeing me through that one dark slit that narrowed further, then pushed himself away from the wall easily, motioning me to follow as he walked deeper into the alley.

  • And yes, on the Queen song. Popped into mine too. 😉

  • Vyton

    Kalayna, your post is very helpful. Reading it, I realized that I rely almost 100 percent on smiles and twinkles in the eye. I’m going to expand to a few new tells. You know the joke about what’s the difference between an introvert engineer and an extrovert engineer? The extrovert looks at *your* shoes.

  • TwilightHero

    Excellent post! I too tend to rely too much on facial expressions. I’ll have to spend more time people-watching.

    Also: I found the Emotion Thesaurus samples mentioned earlier here. This stuff looks VERY useful. I’m bookmarking it. Thanks very much to quillet 🙂

  • Late to the party, but I want to highly recommend The Emotion Thesaurus. Angela and Becca have produced a resource that, if most writers took advantage of, would change the way writing is done. The bulk of the book is arranged as lists of body movements and other brief physical descriptors, arranged alphabetically by emotion. Before this, there’s an *excellent* section discussing Writing non-verbal emotion: avoiding common mistakes. Included are examples of how-to and how-not-to. I do use the lists, but sometimes, rather than find an emotion I want to portray and pick a body language cue, I look over a list and ask myself, what is it about the cues listed here that convey this emotion? Can I think of additional ways to show that same emotion?

    In short, this book gets me thinking out of the cliche and overdone box. Comes in print and e-versions. Can’t recommend it enough. Full title is The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.(their Bookshelf Muse website is a veritable treasure trove of writing aids)