Not Touching, Can’t Get Mad: On Describing Body Language

body_language_gestureAlthough much of modern society is structured around written words, most human communication is not actually verbal. Words might be important, but we gather a huge amount of information about someone’s emotional state, level of sincerity, and general intent from tone of voice and from body language. This presents a potential challenge for people working in written media (obviously, radio conveys tone of voice, visual arts convey body language, and film does both).

My personal favorite method is to slip body language descriptions into dialogue tags. This avoids a repetitive parade of ‘said’ while still signposting who is speaking. It also allows us to convey tone and body language without breaking up the flow of a scene. For example:

“What happened with your boss?” Jose asked.

Tim looked down at his plate. “Nothing much.”

From that, most of us would deduce that Tim is lying, and that something bad went down, without any of the characters having to spell it out or use an internal monologue. The quick dialogue tag does the heavy lifting. In fact, deployed correctly, nods to body language and tone of voice can turn a bland verbal exchange into a very tense scene.

You can also give your characters distinguishing choices in how they move, which makes them stand out further to the reader.  It doesn’t have a be a specific repeated tic, though it certainly can be. Noting that someone usually slams down their coffee, whips doors closed, and stomps down stairs conveys a lot about someone’s demeanor. You might also have a character whose movements are limited– it’s worth giving thought to how they have modified their movements and body language in response.

It’s also extremely important to understand that while the use of body language and gesture is universal among humans, what body language and gestures track to which meanings vary wildly around the world. What is a perfectly sensible gesture in one culture can be confusing or offensive in another (for example, the ‘thumbs up’ that indicates approval in much of the West is an obscene gesture in large swaths of the Middle East and North Africa). Even the size of our ‘personal bubblevaries greatly between cultures.  If you’re writing a story about a culture (including a time period!) different from your own, or have a multicultural cast, triple-check this. (Travel guides, such as the ‘Culture Shock’ series, can be incredibly helpful for playing cross-cultural etiquette catch-up).

By collecting all these body language details and slipping them  judiciously into your writing, you can give your characters a more distinct personality, imbue your dialogue with further layers of meaning and conflict, and capture cultural differences to add realism.

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