This article by Joanne Grant is from the September 2021 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
It is widely believed that at least 50% of human communication is nonverbal. That means that if you rely on dialogue alone to convey character, emotion and behaviour, then the reader will only get half of the story. But how do you utilise body language successfully and in a way that is more compelling than a run-of-the-mill nod or shrug?
In this article, I will give you tips on how to approach body language to ensure it has purpose and meaning, and how to go deeper with your body language descriptions.
Find the significance of body language scene by scene
Watch how humans interact. We’re always moving our bodies, either consciously or subconsciously. If you don’t describe enough body language in your writing, your characters can come across as wooden and unbelievable because this isn’t how people interact.
However, it would be a mistake to try and capture every gesture and twitch a character makes. That would soon become distracting for the reader.
So, when is it good to show body language and what purpose can it have? Let’s look at some examples:
- Convey emotion – Using nonverbal emotional responses can have far more impact than verbal responses alone, and emotional reactions are a great way to build and reveal character.
- Set the tone – Body language can convey tension and mood. If a character stands rigid and glowering when we first meet them, we can assume the situation they’re in isn’t great.
- To break up dialogue – Stretches of dialogue can feel like floating heads having a conversation. Interjections of nonverbal description will break up the dialogue and bring the scene to life whilst enhancing the meaning of the dialogue.
- Show character – Body language can help deepen characterisation. A lot can be inferred by the way someone moves and their facial expressions.
- Add subtext – Subtle or unusual body language can hint at something deeper. This can be used to great effect, for example, in crime novels, when the reader is looking for clues to the identity of the guilty party.
- Create movement – A scene lacking in any body language will feel static and unrealistic. Body language can breathe life into a scene.
Identifying why you’re choosing to add in a body language description can be a good way to determine how much description is suitable.
For example, if it’s a pivotal emotional scene, then it could have more impact to utilise a more evocative or detailed exploration of body language to convey the emotion a character is feeling. However, if you are punctuating quick-moving dialogue with movements, a lengthy pause to describe body language in detail may be unnecessary and can slow the pace.
Look at the context and what the purpose of the description is and focus on what adds to the story at that point in time, in terms of character, setting, or tone.
How to add depth to descriptions
Whether we like it or not, we all have habits that characterise us. When I asked my now husband what his first impressions of me were, he said, “You move your hands a lot when you speak.” I’m not sure if this added to our attraction or not, but either way he married me! The notable thing is he noticed my nonverbal quirks.
And it’s not all about the limbs either. We have around 42 muscles in our face that help us to convey emotions. I favoured the one-eyebrow rise during school years; it was the best nonverbal way to get my “I’m not impressed” point across to annoying teenage boys during class!
What is the meaning behind the movement?
I’d encourage you to think about how you and those around you use body language. Consider the nuances of the movements and what they mean. It’s not unusual to gesticulate when speaking, but some people do it when they are nervous, others when they are excited. Think about the meaning behind that movement, then how you can show it in more depth. Is there a slight tremble that is at odds with the seemingly confident movement in those hands?
And did I, in fact, save my most withering of one-eyebrow raises for the boys I secretly liked? Think about how you could show this with other nonverbal cues—a slight quirk upwards of the mouth, an unconscious hand to the hair.
Body language is open to interpretation and you can add depth to your description by identifying the meaning you want to convey. After all, each of us is unique, just like characters, which is why writing deeper body language will flow from getting to know your characters.
Let’s dig deeper
Think about how your character would behave on an average day. How would they walk and gesture when they talk? What about their facial expressions? Now turn the dial up—because let’s be honest, no one wants to read about an average day! How would they express themselves on an awesome day? Would their body movements change? Would their facial expressions be more exaggerated?
Now let’s get mean and dial it right back down. How about a really bad day? Think of the range of emotions: fear, grief, anger, disappointment, and how they may express them in a nonverbal way.
If you complete this exercise for two or more characters and their reactions are the same, then their unique personalities are not yet coming through with their actions. There will be similarities in the way humans express emotions—tears for grief, smiling for happiness—but knowing your character as an individual will help to create nuances in how they express these emotions. Their body language should stem from their character. Return to who they are and build out their movements from there.
The signature “tell”
Body language can be great at creating subtext by dropping clues for the reader and other characters to pick up on and interpret, or misinterpret. It can be fun to give a character a signature “tell” or a physical habit that holds greater meaning, whether they are aware of it or not.
Think of poker, where getting to understand other players’ “tells” can help you win or lose the game, depending on whether you read the tell correctly. Those tells are subtle, often unconscious movements, but in writing, they will have attention drawn to them because they will be described.
If you want to give your character a signature tell, it’s best to save it for scenes of stress and significance; otherwise it may be too obvious. And if you’re curious, look up poker tells for some inspiration of subtle movements and what they often mean.
How to avoid clichéd body language
There is a fine line between a convention of a genre and a cliché, and this can also depend on personal preference. But anything that is overused, either in your own work or within your genre, can feel tired and clichéd. So how can you avoid this?
Recognise if you use similar phrases, or types of signature tells, to describe body language book after book. Readers will notice if your heroine always bites her lip when nervous or characters always dip their chin to mean “yes.”
Be mindful of characters within a story displaying the same body language. This, again, suggests they are not unique characters, unless they are intentionally or subconsciously mirroring one another.
If you are repeating yourself, return to your characters and think about what body language is unique to them.
Balance is everything
Too much emphasis on body language and overly detailed descriptions can be distracting. They can also slow the pace and be disconcerting—what’s with all the arms flailing about?! And if you give your character a really quirky habit, use it sparingly and for effect. You don’t want to pull the reader out of the story.
On the flip side, too little description and you end up with one-dimensional characters and the story feels flat. Achieving balance is important in bringing your characters to life and can really elevate your storytelling.
Utilising body language is an incredible tool for showing rather than telling, as well as for creating believable, well-rounded characters. If you want to deepen the way you express body language, start with your character. If you know your character how you know yourself, you can uncover the nuances of movements and reactions.
But understanding the significance of the movement in the context of the story is also very important. Sometimes you will want to show the subtle raise of the shoulders as a character lowers their eyes and hangs their head as the fight drains out of them. And other times, you may just need to tell the reader that they shrugged.
Joanne Grant is an editorial coach with over 16 years of editorial expertise working for Harlequin. Joanne has edited hundreds of romance novels over the years and understands how to coach authors of all genres to overcome their barriers and deliver their best work. If you’re interested in finding out how she can help you achieve your writing goals, get in touch—Joanne loves to chat! For inspiration, tips and offers, sign up for her newsletter, join her Facebook group Motivation for Writers! or connect on Twitter @JoanneMGrant.