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.
- 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.
- 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.