As writers, we strive for ‘show don’t tell’. What better way to achieve this than employing the use of body language? Since non-verbal communication is an enormous part of the way humans relate to one another, adding this trick to your author toolbox can only improve your writing. Let’s examine some ways to maximize this technique.
Breaking Down the Non-verbal
The non-verbal signals we give off are varied and dictated by emotions. We may not even realize that we’re doing it. It’s not all visual either. Body language can be perceived by all five of our senses. Let’s break down the emotion of fear:
- Sight – You can see someone sweating. Perspiration can appear in armpits, around temples, and/or above the brow. You could also see someone’s eyes dilate. The whites of the eyes above the iris become more visible in fight/flight response.
- Sound – A person might whine, sob, whimper, breathe erratically, or scream. A tick is a nice touch. When someone is afraid, maybe they tap their hand against their leg or a surface making a rapid, repeated sound.
- Smell – Animals can smell fear, and on some level, so can we. Perspiration certainly has a specific smell and why not make a scene more memorable with a character’s own unique perception of the smells around them?
- Touch – Sweaty palms have a distinct feeling, as do goosebumps. Giving a character awareness of the hairs on their arm standing up is an excellent touch. Awareness of body temperature–too hot, too cold–also works.
- Taste – Your mouth can respond to fear in terms of dryness (which is more like touch) but also bitterness or added acidity could also aid in the readers’ perception of fear.
Body Language from the Planning Stage
As you develop your characters and take notes about them in your story bible, try developing a series of call signs (specific to each character) based on a variety of emotions like anger, happiness, shyness, confusion, hesitance, fear, and sadness, to name a few. If you have a non-verbal database to pull from, it will make writing emotional scenes all the easier.
But Don’t Over Do it
As Oscar Wilde once wisely said, everything in moderation, including moderation. Therefore, adding too many body language nods will kill your prose and create a wild mess–think breakdancing in a blender with arms and legs akimbo. If you’re ever unsure if something’s not working, try reading your work out loud to see if it sounds right. In general, this is an excellent practice for any writer.
And, while we’re discussing what not to do, try and stay away from some of the more ridiculous signals that really don’t work. For example, biting your lip until it bleeds is excruciatingly painful yet it seems like a common theme amongst angsty, love-torn teenagers. I mean really, have you ever tried to bite your lip until it bleeds? It’s not sultry, it’s awful!
For further information
You can Google ‘body language for writers’ and come up with a lot of different resources. Many of them will include suggested lists of phrases that you can pull from. I found both this one and this one to be useful.