How to Effectively Use Body Language in Writing

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How to Use Body Language in Writing

Body language provides non-verbal cues on what a person is thinking or feeling. In writing, it is a great way to show a character’s emotions or thoughts. I’m going to discuss a few ways that gestures can add to your story, and provide a few tips on what you want to avoid when using them.

DO:

  • Use body language in place of tags. Tags are how you show who is speaking (e.g., he said, she said). A good way to show who is speaking without tags is by showing what the character is doing while speaking. The person whose actions are described in the same paragraph as the dialogue should be the one who is speaking.
    • Example: “I remember when we were kids, Grandma would yell at us if we ever touched anything.” Patricia kneeled next to her grandmother’s hope chest and ran her hand across the lid.
  • To reveal contradictory information. People often say things that are in contradiction to how they really feel. Body language can show how a character feels about something even when their words say something else.
    • Example: Clara stumbled over her words. “I don’t know what everyone else sees in Dylan, he’s not even that cute.” Her cheeks turned bright red, and she changed the subject.
  • To reveal character. Body language is a good opportunity to reveal information about your character by showing how they act.
    • Example: Reed slipped his arm under Sarah’s as they stepped onto the ice-covered stairs. 
  • To reveal motivation. Just as a person’s character can be revealed through their actions, so can their motive.
    • Example: Josh caressed her cheek, moving his hand to her shoulder, down her arm, and pausing briefly at her wrist to unclasp her bracelet and dropping it into his free hand, before gliding his hand to interlace his fingers with hers.

DON’T:

  • Use empty gestures. Sighing is a common empty gesture that is ambiguous. It doesn’t reveal much of anything. It could mean a character is frustrated, tired, bored, or any number of other things. Body language is most effective when it is used to show something. Gestures should have a purpose. If a shrug or a nod doesn’t have a purpose or meaning behind it, you can omit it.
  • Overuse gestures. There are many gestures that we’ll find in just about every story we read. Such as he nodded, she shrugged, he raised his eyebrow, she smirked, etc. Be careful not to overuse these gestures. Determine if they really are revealing something, whether they are necessary, or whether you can show the same thing in another way.
  • Gesture us to death. People have a certain pace at which they run through emotions, and characters should too. If a character is grimacing in pain, and then jumps to his feet in a rage, then sits with a haunted look in his eyes of things he can’t speak of, then lets out a booming laugh all within a page, well, then I feel like I’ve been on a rollercoaster ride and I’m also wondering what’s wrong with the character that he’s all over the place with his emotions (I’m currently reading a story like this, so please, I beg of you, don’t put your readers through this). Certainly, people and characters sometimes slide from one emotion to another, and sometimes in a dramatic fashion, but if there are too many gestures revealing a wide swing in emotions every time a character says something, it gets overwhelming.

 

These are a few tips to help get writers thinking about how they are using body language in their stories. There are certainly others, and I’d like to hear what you find makes effective body language and/or what doesn’t work for you.

18 Comments


  1. // Reply

    Thanks so much for the tips! This was really helpful =) I know in writing, sometimes it’s best to use body language over speech tags. Awesome post!


    1. // Reply

      Thank you for stopping by, Aka, and taking the time to comment! I’m so happy you liked the post!


  2. // Reply

    Some awesome tips, Mandie!


      1. // Reply

        You’re most welcome! And yes, thank you, my day was indeed wonderful! I trust that your weekend is going well. 🙂


        1. // Reply

          I’ve come down with a cold, which is slowing down my response time. I rarely get sick. In fact, the last time I was sick was four years ago, almost to the day. I’m hoping to be over it soon. It’s just a cold, but it’s a determined one.


          1. //

            I hope you feel better soon, Mandie. Whoa, you have a wonderful immune system!


  3. // Reply

    This is an excellent post, Mandie, especially the section about using body language in place of tags. I will have to remember that. Thank you for your great tips.

    Have a blessed weekend. 🙂


    1. // Reply

      Thank you! I’m thrilled to get such positive feedback about this post and that people are finding it useful!


  4. // Reply

    “…but if there are too many gestures revealing a wide swing in emotions every time a character says something, it gets overwhelming.” So true.


    1. // Reply

      I think it happens when writers really focus on what the character is doing and how they might react to something, but then they forget to see how that would look on a person running through those emotions in a short period of time.


  5. // Reply

    Thank you so much for this… I don’t think I have ever used body language… it’s a a great way it if can be used (in some moderation)


    1. // Reply

      I think that’s part of the ongoing effort with writing, to make sure every part of the piece moves it forward and serves a purpose.
      Thank you for commenting, Björn. It’s always good to see you stop by.


  6. // Reply

    Fantastic tips, Mandie! Body language is so important, maybe more so than writers might think, and you offered four good reasons why. One of my favorite posts about body language is one about telltale signs that a character is lying. Angela Ackerman wrote it for… a website. I forget which one. *lol* I can share the link with you here, if you’d like.

    I will admit, though, that I’m a big-time offender of gesturing to death. Especially during a first draft. Then again, I overwrite all of my first drafts to begin with. But I think that, subconsciously, I’m so intent on including as much of what I see of the “movie in my head” that I put in too much, and that includes body language. So I end up removing a lot of them as I revise / edit later drafts.


    1. // Reply

      Thank you!
      Yes, I’d love to read the blog post if it’s not too much trouble to find.
      I know what you mean about first drafts. I’m not even aware that I’m doing it, but like you, I think I’m trying so hard to get what I’m picturing in my head down on paper that I tend to overdo it sometimes. There will be times when three paragraphs in a row say the same thing. I figure the scene is replaying in my mind over and over again until I feel like I’ve captured it; meanwhile, my fingers are typing every version, so I don’t even realize that I’m saying the same thing until I go to edit it. Thank goodness first drafts are not final drafts.


      1. // Reply

        No problem. I know exactly where to find the post, since I’ve referred to it a few times before. 😉

        Here’s the link: https://jamigold.com/2012/08/spotlight-on-subtext-when-characters-are-liars/

        Also, I’m reading Light the Dark, which is a collection of essays by various authors about inspiration and the artistic process, and I came across this bit by Leslie Jamison that echoes what you and I were saying about our first draft process:

        “I’ve learned the first draft in my process has to be the part where I don’t say no to anything, where I let myself write deeply into a feeling, spend as long as I want on a scene or emotion, follow as many associations as I want – even if some part of me knows my editing self, three drafts from now, will think it’s facile or self-indulgent.”


        1. // Reply

          Thank you for the link, Sara! I’ll have to check it out.
          That is a good quote. One of the first rules I set for myself in writing, before I even knew what I was doing, is that I wouldn’t allow myself to edit a story until the first draft was done. I knew I was a perfectionist and that I could get bogged down in editing indefinitely. Probably the best rule I’ve ever made for myself.

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