Two Body Language Ninja Moves
Sat May 07 2016
I admit it. Body language is one of my favorite tools for scenes that involve characters interacting with one another.
Which is pretty much every scene I write.
Look at the people in this picture. Look at their bodies. The way they're standing. We don't know their names, we don't know where they are, we don't know what they're talking about, but we sure can read a lot into what's going on between them.
Look at the man's posture. The way his torso is canted forward slightly. The position of his arm. The way his feet are square to one another. Whatever they're talking about, he's pretty clearly trying to convince her of something.
Now look at her. The angle of her neck. The way her face is angled towards him, but her head is just so slightly cocked to one side: Whatever he's saying, I don't think she's buying it.
I love body language because it is an indispensable component of human communication. It is a non-verbal language, but one that can be just as expressive as words. Unfortunately, too often writers either use body language with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, or else fail to use it at all.
In this article I want to share my two favorite ninja tricks for using body language with grace, elegance, and power.
I'm an Expert, You're an Expert, Readers are Experts
Everyone exhibits body language, whether they're aware of it or not. Even better, you and everyone who will ever read your book is an expert in the art of interpreting body language.
We all know what it means when someone shrugs, pumps a fist in the air, crosses their arms over their chest, or shifts uncomfortably from foot to foot. This is just part of being human. It's a skill we've all been practicing our whole lives.
You, the lucky writer, can draw on this expertise to let readers do a lot of the work of understanding characters' mental states. Just like you did, without even thinking about it, when you looked at the picture at the top of this article.
Body Language to Convey Emotion
Ninja Trick Number One: Body language is a wonderful tool for showing characters' moods.
We can't read people's minds. But we can read their body language to glean essential information about other people's attitudes, states of mind, and even how they are reacting to us in any given moment.
I suspect every writer knows this situation: you have a vivid internal sense for the particular, subtly nuanced emotions a character is having, but you can't quite figure out how to describe it.
The solution is, don't.
Don't describe the emotions at all. Stop looking for names to give them. Instead, convey the character's emotions through body language. Not only does that save you from the trouble of finding the perfect phrase, but it allows you to show the emotions instead of telling them. Don't give us this:
The baby's relentless cries drifted down the hall. Jane sat at the dining room table, weary, worn out in body and spirit.
That "weary, worn out in body and spirit" part describes her feelings to the reader, but does not show them. If you're the writer imagining this scene, you are probably visualizing how Jane is sitting. This poor woman, utterly exhausted, on the verge of breaking under the strain of caring for this baby who won't ever stop crying: how do you think she's sitting at that table? What visual do you imagine? Give us that instead. Paint the word picture.
The baby's relentless cries drifted down the hall. Jane slumped over the table, cradling her head against the heels of her hands.
Do you see the difference? This one uses body language to give the reader a clear visual of how, exactly, Jane is sitting at that table. She isn't just sitting, she is slumped over. She's holding her head in her hands, a gesture readers immediately recognize, and doing so with her hands in a very particular position. The posture of the hands themselves conveys some nuance to poor Jane's state of mind.
When the reader visualizes that picture, they know how Jane is feeling without having to be told. They know because they, too, are human and have been studying people's body language all their lives. Just like you have.
Body language works—and works so supremely well—because a character's body language is caused by their inner emotional state. People's feelings affect how they hold their bodies. Jane's feelings affect how she sits at the table. And readers are experts at working backwards from these expressions to the emotions underlying them.
Supercharge Your Dialogue
Ninja Trick Number Two: use body language to fix the two main issues with dialogue sequences, and while doing so, elevate them from good to fabulous.
First off, talking is not the smoothest thing in the world. People in real life are not as immediately eloquent as they are in the movies. In real conversations, people often work out their own ideas and opinions while they talk just as much as they talk to convey those ideas and opinions.
Often, people don't know what they really think about something until they've said it. Thus, realistic conversations are full of stops and starts, of sentences started but abandoned half-formed, and pauses while people collect their thoughts.
Second, written conversations are loaded with dialogue attributions. Those little "Jane said" and "Tom asked" markers indicating who's speaking. Don't those get dull after a while? Darned right they do.
Here's a typical example. Let's imagine it is an hour later. Jane's husband Tom comes home to find Jane still at the table and the baby still crying.
"What the hell, Jane?" Tom asked. Ellie was in his arms, still crying, but softer now.
"Did you change her?" Jane asked.
"Yeah I changed her," Tom said. "What's going on?"
"Can you take her for a little while? I need to—" Jane said. She paused a moment, then added, "I can't—"
"No. Don't you walk out," Tom said. "Not until you explain what this is about. How long was she crying in there anyway?"
It's a little dry, isn't it? Feels kind of like two actors standing stock-still on a stage, reciting lines at one another.
Fortunately, with judicious application of body language we can fix both problems while also adding a much-needed layer of emotional clarity. Here's that same example, but with body language:
"What the hell, Jane?" Tom strode into the dining room, stopping behind Jane. Ellie was in his arms, still crying, but softer now.
Jane pushed herself up from the table and wiped the corners of her eyes. "Did you change her?"
"Yeah I changed her." His shoulders arched slightly. "What's going on?"
"Can you take her for a little while? I need to—" Jane pressed her hands against her ears and moved towards the door. "I can't—"
"No." Tom side-stepped in front of her. "Don't you walk out. Not until you explain what this is about. How long was she crying in there anyway?"
This version is much more dynamic. It isn't just two talking heads, but includes motion and action that keeps the scene lively.
Notice how body language serves to fill the pauses in the characters' speech, or convey pauses that were previous invisible? This works because the time it takes for readers to read and visualize the body language feels like a pause in the conversation. You don't have to actually say there was a pause; readers will perceive one anyway.
The time it takes for Jane to push herself up from the table indicates that she didn't respond to Tom's question immediately. Tom arching his shoulders indicates a short break between stating that he changed the baby and asking Jane what's up. Jane pressing her hands to her ears replaces the explicit pause in the first version.
Notice how body language replaces the dialogue attributions? There are none left in the passage, and I don't think anyone would miss them. In modern narrative writing, physical actions taken by a character in the same paragraph as some dialogue also serve to identify the speaker. You don't have to say "Jane said" if Jane is expressing body language at the same time.
(A warning on that: If you're going to use body language instead of attributions, you'd better make sure the body language belongs to the same character who's speaking. Don't mix one person's dialogue with another person's body language in the same paragraph. That confuses everybody by implying that a different person was speaking. In a dialogue sequence, treat each paragraph as a unit of communication—both verbal and non-verbal—belonging to only one character.)
And, just as in Ninja Trick Number One, notice how the body language adds an emotional layer to the conversation. Now, not only can we hear what the characters are saying, but we more clearly understand how they're feeling while they say it. Tom striding into the room conveys his concern, or even alarm, at coming home to find his wife ignoring their crying child. Jane pushing herself up and wiping her eyes conveys her fatigue, and perhaps that she has been crying too. Pressing her hands to her ears makes clear that she can't take the noise anymore.
You don't often get a three-for-one benefit from anything in life. But that's exactly what body language gets you in dialogue scenes.
Body language really is a language too. It conveys different things than words, but carries real meaning just like words do. And it's important meaning: body language gives the critical emotional context that allows everyone—both readers and the characters in the scene—to correctly understand the meaning of the dialogue.
If you're writing without body language, you're only letting readers hear half the conversation.