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Friday, May 20, 2011


I recently had a conversation with someone who said using body language to express the emotions of a character was lost on them. Really? Wow! “So,” I said, “if I made a fist and extended my arm in the direction of your face you would not know what was coming or how I was feeling?” The response was, “Well, you might be mad and going to hit me.” Like, hello! Body language.
What brought the discussion on was I’d put a book down in frustration because the author had the characters do something and then interpreted that action. For example - she slammed the door then said, she was angry. In the context of the rest of the paragraph I understood she was angry when she slammed the door. Like my friend, when you see a fist coming your direction you figure you are going to be hit. The owner of said fist doesn’t need to accompany the action with a verbal warning. Same thing when you write. There is an instinctual understanding of body language. I call it lizard brain instinct.
As mystery and suspense authors how do you show a character is the bad guy without coming out and saying it? I use inappropriate eye contact, as in glaring and holding contact to long, a dismissive glance, no eye contact at all, a predatory up and down look that makes you feel like you are on the menu. My bad people laugh at the suffering of others and are almost always space invaders. That is, people who constantly stand to close forcing others to back up. I also use inappropriate touching. I mean if a woman just met a man five minutes ago and out of the blue, he slips an arm around her waist and pulls them together. For me that’s a strong ewww factor. Does it hit you wrong also, or do you need to be told why it’s inappropriate?
What do you get from these situations?
1. A character in an interview is jiggling his leg looking side to side.
2. A couple sitting in the doctor’s office leaning toward one another. Leaning away.
3. A couple at a table in Starbucks, she is leaning over the table in his direction arm outstretched, palm up. He is leaning back arms crossed.
4. Another couple leaning to each other, hands resting on the table, finger tips barely touching.
5. A man in a suit standing legs spread, hands on his hips pushing his suit jack back elbows sticking out. Or, he is leaning back in a chair, an ankle resting on the opposite knee his hand clasped behind his head.
6. What is a woman telling her companion when she laughs and tips her head back exposing her throat?
7. A man and woman are standing together. She is leaning into him head resting on his shoulder and a hand in the middle of his chest. He has one arm around her, the other in a pants pocket and a big grin on his face.
8. A woman walking away from a man she knows is checking out her aft deck, turns and looks at him over her shoulder and licks her lips.

What I see.
1. The character is nervous.
2. The couple are happy and getting alone. Leaning away -they aren’t very happy with each other.
3. She is pleading about something and he really doesn’t want to hear it.
4. A new relationship.
5. Both of these tell me the man is in control and he is letting everyone know it with his displays.
6. Exposing the vulnerable throat indicates she trusts him and is ready to move to the next level of the relationship.
7. I feel like she is declaring ownership. He is telling every man in the room- yeaph she’s mine, eat your heart out.
8. No stamp needed for that invitation.

So, tell me what you see in these situations. Do you like subtle body language in the books you read? Do you use it in your writing?


Amanda Brice said...

I think subtle body language can be a great tool, but not everyone can do it effectively. But when done well, it really adds to the work.

Bev Pettersen said...

Nice post, Rita. Body language adds so much. But I have to be careful not to use the same thing, over and over.

Diana Layne said...

I tend to use body language and then tell, it's a weakness of mine I have to watch for. But like Amanda said, it's tough to use that subtle body language well.

Elisa Beatty said...

Terrific examples, Rita!

Between external body language and descriptions of internal physical sensations generated by emotion (Margie Lawson style), you can make the emotional states of characters real.

I agree with Bev, though, that you have to keep it fresh.

Rita said...

Thanks for stopping by ladies.
I agree the subtleties are tough. It’s the show don’t tell thing for me. Really, I don’t mind if you tell me. Try not to do both when it isn’t necessary.

Rita said...

Elisa, when I find a good word, phrase, or way to describe emotion I want to use it more than once by golly. I am always editing out duplicates. Heavy sigh.

Elise Warner said...

I tend to use both and I do have to be careful about overusing a gesture that I feel is telling. that's where my rewrites come in.

Good post, Rita.

Anne Marie Becker said...

Great examples!

Absolutely, I use body language. I think it's an important subtext in real life, so it's important to making life-like characters.

Like Bev said, I have to watch how many times I use a certain "tell." :) I didn't realize how many times I'd used a certain one until I had an editor!

Shea Berkly said...

Body language is what makes a story pop. Those are awesome examples, Rita. Thanks for sharing.

Rita said...

Anne Matie, Ding, ding, ding. Somethimed I use them over on purpose as a tell. Other times.. well, it's just overuse

Marcelle Dubé said...

Interesting discussion, Rita. I have been guilty of the "in case you didn't get what I was trying to tell you, here's a baseball bat across the head" school of writing: not trusting the reader to "get" what I was trying to convey with body language.

An additional thought: sometimes culture affects body language. For instance, where I grew up, people touch each other all the time while talking and often stand closer to each other than people from other cultures find comfortable. Since I no longer live where I grew up, I always notice the difference when I go back for a visit.

Rita said...

I have three books on body language and two body language lecture packets I refer to constantly. It’s all a learning curve. The more you do it the better you get. Or the more your editor points out

Rita said...

Excellent point! Some cultures men and women are not permitted to make eye contact in public. I understand diplomats are taught what not to do and what to expect in other countries For those of you who went to the KOD State Department tour remember the lady who told us about her experiences as the first woman to fill a post in a Middle Eastern country?

liztalley said...

I'm pretty sure I don't think about it enough, so I'm glad I tuned in today. Now I'll intentionally thinknabout it as I'm layering the wip.

Nice topic.

Tina Joyce said...

I love subtle body language, too, Rita. I have to admit to picking a favorite and then overusing it without realizing it. It takes my CPs pointing out the repetitions to make me realize what I've done.

Great post!

Darynda said...

I absolutely love it when a writer does body language and does it well. To me there is a big difference between a disinterested shrug and the slight lifting of one shoulder with eye lowered and chin tucked.

Great post!

Toni Anderson said...

I love Margie Lawson's non verbal communication workshops for this reason. Body language is so important. Greta post Rita, and yes, I remember our State Department visit.

Louisa Cornell said...

Great post, Rita! Actually I must confess I haven't given a great deal of thought to this subject. Your post is going in my writing craft notebook to remind me. I am sure when I look over my current WIP I will find myself guilty of expressing a character's emotion with body language followed by a completely superfluous explanation as to what that body language means. DOH !!!

Surprisingly I do spend a great deal of time studying my dogs' body language. All of my dogs are rescued dogs and they come from some terrible situations. It is vital, especially at first that I watch their postures and body positions to make sure I don't push them too far. I don't think human body language is that much different except for the wagging tail!

Rita said...

Ther is always something else to think about. Heavy sigh. I swear this must be the only business that the more you know the harder it gets.

Rita said...

Thanks for stopping by Darynda. I'm finding too many authors using the overt stock motions. In my quest to do it better I’ve become a big people watcher and learning a lot.

Rita said...

Toni, one of my packets is Matgie's the other is May Buckham's

Rita said...

Louisa, I think in our lizard brain we all know what these body signals mean, but we have suppressed our instincts. Even reading animal’s body languages in a survival instinct. Knowing when it’s safe to approach and when we’re about to get eaten.. I am always amazed by those that climb in to a wild animal enclosure and are surprised when they are attacked.

Vivi Andrews said...

I probably fall into the "baseball bat to the head" school also, in part because I like deeper POV - so the extra "golly, that guy slamming doors is angry!" becomes a confirmation that the POV character is interpreting the body language the same way the reader is. If that makes sense.

Rita said...

Vivi makes sense and from what I've read of yours there are no baseball bats involved.

Gwynlyn said...

I have always loved your "lizard brain" label. It works on so many levels.

I still catch myself "interpreting" action for readers---in the event they aren't smart enough to catch it for themselves, you understand. Yeah, not bright. How may times am I, with my explanations, going to call anyone dense, dim, or just plain stupid before they toss my book against the wall?

Not many, I'll bet.

Excellent blog, Rita! ;-)

Rita said...

Gwen I just feel even after millions of years of evolution we haven’t lost our survival of the fittest instincts.

Anonymous said...

Love your examples, Rita. Subtle body language can be almost like screaming. You get emotions and points across without spelling them out.

Great post!


Autumn Jordon said...

Great post, Rita. Whenever I read an author telling what a character is feeling, I wonder why she didn't show. BL is a powerful tool.

Okay, I'll play with a few. Number one, you say nervous. I could say he is in a hurry to pick up his son or happy because he knows he nailed the interview and can't wait to get started.

Number two, The couple leaning together are discussing a diagnous and it's not good. Away same thing. It's not good. Either way you get a good feeling of what is going on the character's head.

Rita said...

Thanks Jenn and thanks for visiting

Rita said...

Hi Autumn. Ir's fun to sit back, watch and make up a story about what is going on with people.

MaureenAMiller said...

Ironically, I was just editing a scene and stepped away to read your post, and after reading your post I shook my fist at my scene! LOL

Thank you, Rita. Your input helped me.

Rita said...

Glad I could help Maureen. But, I'm wondering about that fist shakin stuff.

Vanessa Barneveld said...

Hi, Rita! Great exercise. Body language is so important in writing. It's where our "Show, don't tell" skills come into play. I have to admit to overusing some gestures--sarcastic eye rolls or characters standing with hands on hips, for instance. I try to weed them out during revisions.

Rita said...

Good morning Vanessa.
I know. Like I said, when I find somethong I like I want to use it more than once


Greetings! I love body language with dialogue instead of the he said, she said.

Rita said...

Hi Kelly. Thanks for stopping by.

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