Thursday, June 25, 2009

Body Language

Cave men used body language to communicate and so do we. Our spoken language is probably much more understandable than their grunts, but we don’t use just words to get our message across either. Being verbal isn’t enough.

As writers we rely on dialogue to a large degree to show interaction between our characters and move our story forward. But words alone often don’t present the whole picture of what’s actually happening. And at times words can be inaccurate or misleading.

Body language/non verbal communication helps to give our dialogue meaning. Without the character’s body language, the conversation might be flat or hard to interpret. You can say one thing but mean another. In the real world the meaning might be easy to figure out, but not so easy on the written page.

The true meaning of a conversation may be deduced through the tone of voice, inflection, facial expression, eye contact, hand gestures, choice of words, changes in breathing and body movements etc. So it’s important to add some of these non verbal clues to our dialogue. Obviously it’s crucial to show the characters actions along with their words. Sprinkle them throughout a discussion.

I don’t know about you, but I hate to read lots of ‘talking heads’ dialogue without picturing how the characters are responding to the words and to each other. It’s like a phone call without tone of voice or inflexion. The dialogue might be strong and impart emotion (and it should be), but the impact would be greater with some body language to reinforce it. These non verbal clues bolster our dialogue and differentiate one character from another. It’s showing, not telling and we all know how important that is!

There are two important parts of any message that we have to consider—how it’s sent and how it’s received. Since in a written story the reader can’t see how the character is conveying her message, the writer has to add enough information to get her idea across clearly. Sometimes our words are neutral. It’s our tone of voice and inflection that give it meaning.

As writers, we convey our characters’ emotions and lots of them—aggression, boredom, attention, deception, defensiveness, dominance, judgment, power, relaxation, romantic feelings, submissiveness etc. If we do our job well, we paint a vivid picture with their body language which will bring our story alive for our readers. The picture will be clear in our mind since we’re writing, but make sure it’s equally as clear for the reader.

Verbal language is often fairly easy to control, but not so body language. It’s hard to disguise stress, and strong emotions such as anger and fear. And if you know what a character’s normal body language is, then you can tell if it’s changed because of a difficult or stressful situation. It can be really hard to hide your true feelings.

If you’re interested in learning more about Non Verbal Communication, take one of Mary Buckham’s online courses. She’s an expert.


  1. Great post! I've just been trying to figure out if it's possible to show sympathy with body language, and how. It's so powerful. Thanks!

  2. Good morning! I think it's hard to show emotion even though it's necessary. I tend to use the same old worn out phrases--winced, smirked etc. With sympathy I usually use eyes (I use them way too much)or hugs, shoulder around the arm etc.

    I pay lots of attention to how other writers express body language in their books.

  3. Good morning, Cara. Thanks for the excellent reminder on how to use body language to show our characters. I especially love showing a character is lying or avoiding a response.

    I brought ham and cheese egg bake and coffee this morning. Dig in!


  4. Ah, good morning, Cara-Mia!

    Body language. Not getting caught in same-old, same-old.

    That's tough for writers because we all have our favorite ways of conveying emotion.

    I like to read multiple books of really strong writers and steal, er, umm....

    BORROW their ideas. I make lists of words/phrases I don't or haven't used and then purposely incorporate them into the next book so that I don't sound the same from book to book.

    Rehashed words annoy me when I read them but it's soooooooooo hard to not do the exact same thing.

    So, Cara, how's everything in FL, dear?

    Warm enough for you? Life's good???


    Janet, thanks for the egg bake. I brought Dunkin Donuts because I need a sugar high and it's right down the road and too hot to cook in Philly today.

    But Dunkin???? They've always got the donut fryer on, LOL!


  5. Thanks for the great post, Cara. Body language is so important and yet so difficult to communicate in the written word. I find myself using a lot of sighs: she sighed, he sighed, they sighed... :) Annoying really. I've been learning how to better convey frustration, not knowing, and concern through other means besides the age-old sigh! Thanks for the reminder and for the push to discover new and exciting ways for my characters to reveal their emotions without just blurting them out! (A lot of my characters tend to enjoy blurting things out, especially when it's inappropriate.)


  6. You girls make me hungry. I think I'll have a latte with whip.

    Ruthy, life is very, very good in northwest Florida, but way too hot! Yesterday was our coolest day in awhile--only 94. It's been over 100 and even the natives are complaining.

    I also write down great phrases I find in books and then try to come up with something similar. I'm always afraid of plagerizing, so I try to add some originality.

    Janet, I've noticed you come up with many clever ways to say things. The mark of a wonderful writer.

  7. A Call for Examples...

    Hi Carla:

    I needed this post very much. It is far too easy to fall in love with your dialogue and forget body language.

    Please: Would any of the authors here share some examples from their works on how body language augmented the dialogue. It would be a big help.



  8. Excellent points, Cara! My characters can be major sighers, so I usually end up doing a search for sighs in my final edits.

    And I agree, it's fun to keep tabs on how other writers express body language. I try not to copy them exactly, but I do borrow and reframe from time to time.

    In fact, one of my favorites is how I've seen Ruthy's characters "wing a brow"--love that image, so vivid! Can't you just see it?

    Another great source for help with body language and nonverbals is Margie Lawson's "Empowering Character Emotions" course.

    Well, I "jogged" 1.5 miles around Wii Island this morning, so I think I deserve a nonfat mocha latte and some of Janet's egg bake. Yum!

  9. Cara--I'm wrestling with this very challenge right now. Find vivid, new ways to convey emotions to a greater depth.

    Have you watched the TV show 'Lie to Me'? It grabs hold of the fact that facial expressions and body language do 'tell the truth' far better than our words. And it's giving me a much broader base to use nonverbal cues to create much-needed tension.

    Thanks for a vital reminder! (Lips curling upward and eyes twinkling)

  10. Hey Cara. It seems the more I discover about body language, the more I want to research it. Thanks for the tip on Mary's class.

    I loved the TV series 'Lie to Me' and hope they come out with a whole slew of new episodes.

    Thanks for the great post, Cara.

  11. Hi Cara,

    I like your post. In the beginning of my current WIP, the heroine is a worry wort. I've tried to incorporate body language, like biting the corner of her lip to indicate she's starting to worry, rather than have her verbalize it.


  12. How we react seems to indicate truth even more clearly than what we say. I think I'll try to be more aware of my facial expressions! Little kids are really good at reading body language. Some of it's because they may not understand every word we're saying. But also, kids don't have much power, but they know wh does.

  13. My mind is bursting at the seams with all the excellent info I'm getting from all of you polished writers. If half of it sinks in, I'll be thrilled.

  14. Shaddy, I'm so glad you enjoy Seekerville! We love having this blog.

  15. So, Cara, just wondering...

    The whole caveman thing. You know. Their body language...

    You know this because you use Geico? You watch too much TV? You're THAT old???

    You married one?????

    Inquiring minds want to know!


    How about some caveman stew?



  16. Vince, examples...


    I'm disadvantaged because I'm not on my own computer, but let's see:

    Startled awake, Craig eyed his cell phone. Did it ring? An emergency call?

    No way. He had the weekend off. Trying to focus through sleep-deprived eyes, the digital display flashed twelve-fifty-two. Then fifty-three.

    He stretched back out, plumped his pillow, closed his eyes and decided he must have been thrust awake by a dream he couldn't remember.

    Woof. Woof. Woof.

    The baritone bay dragged Craig's eyes open once more. Ah, yes. That was in the dream. A dog calling him.


    Rubbing his eyes, Craig peered at the clock a second time.


    Woof... Woof... Woof, woof, woof...

    Somebody's dog wasn't happy and the only one close enough to have a dog he would hear was Sarah Slocum.

    Of course.

    While body language is often viewed as how a person appears to other characters, I see it as a huge part of scene setting even solo. It can be active (actions, movements, facial expressions) or it can be a quiet punctuation of a scene...

    Standing tall and silent...

    Quivering in anticipation..

    Shoulders back, chin high, she faced her accuser.

    The ease of his aggressive posture screamed cop in big, bold letters.


    The word generally brought Cress Dietrich into full cop mode, feet braced, heart fast, ears tuned, weapon in hand.

    Just a few from my files. Who's got more?


  17. Great blog post, Cara! It goes right along with the workshop I've been listening to this week.

    Mark Mynheir's Police Procedural workshop from ACFW 2008. Mark is a detective and a novelist, and the workshop is amazing.

    He explains about body language and how to watch for clues. For instance, if he's interviewing a suspect, he tries to make small talk first. Then when he asks a hard question, he tries to gauge their body language against their body language when they weren't trying to squirm out of something.

    He stresses not to rely on one thing, like glancing away, or rubbing your chin, but a cluster of movements.

    Since I write historicals, I really didn't think I needed this class, but boy was I wrong. It's great for lots of stuff, not just collaring criminals. And my 1880's Sheriff's deputy could have benefited from what I'm learning too!

  18. I am such a slacker Seeker. Sorry.

  19. Hi Ruth:

    Thanks for the examples. I’ve had two judges write ‘body language’ on my entries and one even said that she “wanted to know what my characters’ bodies were doing when they were speaking” – so I am pretty sure I don’t get it. Some times you just need to see examples.


  20. Cara,This was a great help!
    I'd like to mention a TV drama that I discovered this past season called "Lie to Me." This is about a body language expert who is called in on police cases to help determine guilt or innocence, find the guilty person, etc. The really neat thing about the show is that the characters explain the body langauge during their conversation. For ex., if someone give s slight shrug of their shoulder, the person is probably lying. Last season's shows can be found on - which is free. :)

  21. Fantastic post. I work with kids and adolescents on the Autism Spectrum and we're always having conversations about nonverbal communication. Does that help my writing? Oh gee, I hope so, but it DOES help me figure out how complicated communication really is. What we say without words almost always trumps our verbal comments.

    I'm trying to get out of my habit of using the same old phrases and try some new descriptors, but it's hard. Old habits die hard, I guess :-)

    Thanks for the post.