Body Language and the Writer

Incorporating body language into your writing is a key element that helps your tale to read more like a movie. The advantage that TV had over radio was that you could not only hear the action, you could see it. Why else are there so many variations on, say, Taming of the Shrew by Shakespeare? For those who are not familiar, it is about a wild woman who becomes “domesticated” by a man who is determined to have her as his wife. At the end, the “shrew” gives a short lecture on the role of a woman as the submissive housewife. More recent productions have made it so the shrew gives the audience a big wink, as though she is just saying what she knows is expected of her, and she is playing everyone. Now, suppose that she were to give this speech while wagging her finger at her now-wild sister, or if she were to hold her man’s arm. Same words, different meanings.

But the purpose of writing body language is not only to change the meaning of words; it is also to clarify meaning, invoke tone, mood, and embrace the surroundings. Imagine the different ways a character can handle a spoon: throw it, roughly beat batter with it (forgetting the whisk in her rage), fight with too-hard ice cream, put a cold spoon on the back of someone’s neck, wag it like a finger, hit their own head with it, or even provocatively lick it clean.

There is even more to body language than what you do; just as necessary is writing the involuntary reactions. The combination of voluntary and involuntary actions basically defines who the character is. Does the child withdraw from his severely burned father? Of course, this is a child we are discussing, and his reactions are expected to be instinctive and unchecked. What about the wife? Does she try to hide her horror by bringing her hand to her face?

And what about the various reactions that could be given to a proposal?

There are several ways that people communicate:

  • What they heard (or interpreted)
  • What they say
  • What they meant
  • Tone of voice, volume of voice, speed of words
  • Spacing between the words (stuttering, pausing, rushing, then waiting)
  • How deliberate or natural the body language is
  • Facial cues (such as twitching, eyebrow movements, change in expression)
  • Body movements
  • Body posture
  • Hand motions, feet motions, mouth motions, eye motions
  • Blushing, dilation, or breathing changes
  • Dry mouth, sweating, cracking joints, stretching, or yawning

Verbal Communication

The first act in verbal communication is understanding what is being said. Is the “Hello” a familial one, an interested one, or one given out of social nicety? Does the character interpret the message appropriately? From there, how do they respond? Do they reply in a mirrored fashion, a sarcastic one, or with the opposing emotion expected? A mirrored fashion indicates a desire to be accepted, an unwillingness to rock the boat, or reciprocating interest. Sarcasm takes many forms, ranging from rude to humorous. To respond the opposite of expected is to relay a bold personality, lack of interest, or poor mood.

While talking, a person first chooses their words. It might be an instinctive response (“How are you?”/”Good. And you?”) or a thought-out one (“How are you?”/”I’m doing well. How about yourself?”). Then there are the ways of speaking, which may or may not be deliberate. How is the tone? The volume? The timing? Does the person speak confidently, or do they pause often to gauge the response of the other?

Facial Cues

The face reveals much, often in a fraction of a second. A short lifting of the eyebrows (involuntary) indicates that someone is impressed or likes what they see; this action opens up the eyes and makes them seem brighter and more welcoming. Unless it is watched for, it can be easily missed. However, a person may choose to hold the expression to ensure that the recipient understands the message. Furrowed brows can indicate thinking, anger, or concentration. Skewed brows can indicate confusion. Lips show a great deal of emotion as well, be they pursing, curling, smiling, grimacing, licking, parting, or tugging. Eyes, and eye contact, are vital components of facial cues. Eyes can be winked, blinked, dilated, widened, narrowed, slanted, closed, or opened.

Don’t forget the nostril flare! This powerful little motion can show romantic interest, frustration, or too much working out.

Body Movements

We can shift our weight, rock back and forth, stand firmly, drop a hip, and do any combination of motions to cue others in to our intentions. Many gestures fall into this category, and the options available to writers are limited only by the social and cultural meanings behind gestures. Read up on some gestures.

Body Posture

A bored person will slouch forward or slump in their chair; an interested person will lean forward while sitting very upright. If  person decides to move into another person’s personal space, it can convey a variety of meanings. It might be aggressive, predatory, affectionate, familial, or a signal of greetings or parting.

Personal Space

The exact size of the space “bubbles” vary from person to person and culture to culture, but everyone has an intimate space, a personal space, a social space, and a public space. Public space is the area surrounding a person where they are comfortable with strangers milling around, largely ignoring them or taking passing notice. Social space is the area where it is comfortable to meet others for the first time, and this space can be drastically reduced depending on the noise level of the venue. Personal space is the concept we are the most familiar with, and most often friends, family, and people of interest are allowed in this circle. Intimate space is reserved for very close family, lovers, and friends that are almost family. Space largely goes unnoticed while writing, except when someone new enters personal or intimate space. During those times, it is good to mention how close this newcomer is, as well as how the character is reacting to the change in relationship.

Fill your dialogue with physical cues and motions. Though there are many sources you can use for inspiration, here are a couple that I found interesting:

How to Read Body Language

Romantic Cues (men give to women)

On your character profile, make a quick note about your character’s body language so you may remain consistent, and avoid redundancies among your cast.


2 thoughts on “Body Language and the Writer

    1. No problem! I’m planning an expansion on this post to include a list of small things people do for certain emotions. It’s taking a little digging, and I’m taking notes on the books I’m reading.

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