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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