Monday, April 2, 2012

The A to Z Challenge: Today's Word: Body Language

Dialogue is the spoken language we give our characters. It is verbal communication. There is another kind of communication, or language, that we humans also use, sometimes without realizing it. That kind is called "body language."

Some researchers into human communication claim that between 60% and 70% of our communication is non-verbal behavior, or body language. So what is body language? It is a form of mental and physical ability expressed in body posture, eye movements, facial expressions, tone of voice, and gestures. Most often, these expressions, postures, and so on are subconscious on our part. How do they translate into our writing?

We know practically from day one in a writing course that we must "show and not tell." We learn not to use "dialogue tags" other than "said" or "asked," unless it's absolutely necessary to get our point across. So we resort to using body language, perhaps without even realizing this is what we're doing. For example:

Chris was determined that Sara know he was sorry for not taking her to the dance. He stood in her kitchen and said, "Come on, Sara, I'm sorry, you know I would have taken you if I could. It was a family emergency."

"Fine. It's okay." Sara kept her back turned to him, and viciously attacked the carrot she was cutting . ( Doesn't sound like it's "fine" to me.)

He came up behind her and put his arms around her. "I'm sorry. Honest I am."
She tensed against him, and continued to chop vegetables, pulling her arms away from him. ( Uh oh, I don't think she's accepting his apology.) "I said it was okay. You don't have to keep saying you're sorry." She twisted away from him, threw the vegetables in the pot, and slammed the pot down on the stove.

Her dialogue says everything is okay between Sara and Chris, but her body language says exactly the opposite. We are showing that she is still angry and upset, rather than telling the reader she is, and we are doing that by her body language. What do you think about what happens next?

Chris moved away from Sara and thrust his hands in his pockets. "You could at least look at me."

She turned around and crossed her arms over her chest. "Okay, I'm looking at you. Now what?"

"Well, you could at least accept my apology. I said I was sorry." Chris looked down at the floor, and rubbed the toe of one shoe against the grainy wood floor.

Sara looked at him intently for a moment. She sighed, uncrossed her arms and returned to the sink. "Just leave, Chris. It's over. Leave now."

When Chris thrust his hands in his pockets, we know he is anxious about what he is saying, and how Sara is receiving it. Why? Is he lying, after all?

Sara crosses her arms against her chest, which is a classic sign of defensiveness, or putting a barrier between oneself and the other person. She doesn't want Chris getting close to her, physically or emotionally.

Chris looks down at the floor, and rubs his shoe against the floor. Again, classic body language signs of anxiety, deceit, and/or guilt. When Sara sees this, she immediately knows he is lying, and she puts an end to the relationship.

When you give your character some kind of action in place of a dialogue tag, you are very often using body language. If you are not too familiar with all the classic signs of body language ( and often we are not, because most of the time we use it, it is unconsciously), do a Google search and you will find a wealth of information. Using body language aids your characters through non-verbal communication, and adds depth and realism to your story.

Until next time,
That's a wrap.


  1. I know I'm a TERRIBLE body-language user. When I talk I wave my hands around, pantomime what I'm doing, gesture, point, throw my hands up. I love using body language for my characters. I think it stems from the SHOW, DON'T TELL lesson that the ICL classes pound into you from assignment one. :) Reading HOW someone acts is more fun and engaging than reading ABOUT how someone acts.

  2. You Italians are always "hand talkers!" My aunt was an opera singer in Italy and Greece, and from what she told me, her directors were always having to caution her about using "body language' that wasn't called for in the operatic story! Being French, I'm also that way, and getting a French woman and an Italian woman together in one room is likely to cause real trouble, unless the room is fairly large!

  3. I love using body language because I hate dialogue tags. This is such an effective tool for a writer. Great example too, Mikki.