Body Language

     I recently had a conversation with someone who said using body language to express the emotions of a character was lost on them.  Really? Wow! 

Me: “So, if, I made a fist and extended my arm in the direction of your face you would not know what was coming or how I was feeling?”  

Them: “Well, you might be mad and going to hit me.”

Ya Think?  Like, hello! Body language.

What brought the discussion on was I mentioned putting a book down in frustration because the author had the characters do something and then interpreted that action. For example – she slammed the door. The author then wrote, “She was angry.”  In the context of the rest of the paragraph I understood she was angry when she slammed the door.  Like my friend, when you see a fist coming your direction you figure you are going to be hit. The owner of said fist doesn’t need to accompany the action with a verbal warning.  Same thing when you write. There is an instinctual understanding of body language. I call it lizard brain instinct.

As mystery and suspense authors how do you show a character is the bad guy without coming out and saying it?  I use inappropriate eye contact, as in glaring and holding contact to long, a dismissive glance, no eye contact at all, a predatory up and down look that makes you feel like you are on the menu. My bad people laugh at the suffering of others and are almost always space invaders. That is, people who constantly stand to close forcing others to back up. I also use inappropriate touching. I mean if a woman just met a man five minutes ago and out of the blue, he slips an arm around her waist and pulls them together. For me that’s a strong ewww factor. Does it hit you wrong also, or do you need to be told why it’s inappropriate?

What do you get from these situations?     

  1. A character in an interview is jiggling his leg looking side to side.
  2. A couple sitting in the doctor’s office leaning toward one another. Leaning away.
  3. A couple at a table in Starbucks, she is leaning over the table in his direction arm outstretched, palm up. He is leaning back arms crossed.
  4. Another couple leaning to each other, hands resting on the table, finger tips barely touching.
  5. A man in a suit standing legs spread, hands on his hips pushing his suit jack back elbows sticking out. Or, he is leaning back in a chair, an ankle resting on the opposite knee his hands clasped behind his head.
  6. What is a woman telling her companion when she laughs and tips her head back exposing her throat?
  7. A man and woman are standing together. She is leaning into him head resting on his shoulder and a hand in the middle of his chest. He has one arm around her, the other in a pants pocket and a big grin on his face.
  8. A woman walking away from a man she knows is checking out her aft deck, turns and looks at him over her shoulder and licks her lips.

What I see.

  1. The character is nervous.
  2. The couple are happy and getting along. Leaning away -they aren’t very happy with each other.
  3. She is pleading about something and he really doesn’t want to hear it.
  4. A new relationship.
  5. Both of these tell me the man is in control and he is letting everyone know it with his displays.
  6. Exposing the vulnerable throat indicates she trusts him and is ready to move to the next level of the relationship.
  7. She is declaring ownership of her man. He is telling every man in the room- yeaph she’s mine, eat your heart out.  
  8. No stamp needed for that invitation.

So, tell me what you see in these situations.  Do you like subtle body language in the books you read? Do you use it in your writing?   

Rita writes Romantic Suspense and Thrillers and has a collection of short stories from the odd side.  

17 responses to “Body Language”

  1. Great post, Rita. I hate when I read the bodily language and then have it explained to me. when an author does that I’m pulled right out to the story.

    This is a great reminder to get out there and take notes while watching people.

    Thanks for the inspiration this morning.

  2. I think body language is an extremely valuable tool in any writer’s toolkit, but I do occasionally like to have body business clarified. Like “she tightened her grip on the steering wheel, her blood burning with rage” versus “she tightened her grip on the steering wheel, trying to hold herself together” versus “she tightened her grip on the steering wheel, her hands slippery after she spilled lotion all over herself…” We don’t want to bludgeon the reader over the head with our interpretations of actions, but sometimes we can help them out. Or at least that’s my take. 🙂 Great post, Rita.

  3. Spot-on post, Rita! Body language definitely has a place in my reading and writing world. It’s a classic example of show, don’t tell. But when pacing and tone call for it, I’ll throw in a straight up emotional reference.

    BTW, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Ackerman and Puglisi is a great craft book on this subject.

  4. jbrayweber says:

    Wonderful reminder and spot-on examples, Rita.
    Many times, the body language stands alone and can be more powerful than words.

    Great post!


  5. Darynda Jones says:

    Great post, Rita! I think body language is essential. I was going to mention the Emotion Thesaurus, too. I’ve had a copy forever, but only started using it recently. No idea why, because it’s wonderful.

  6. Liz Talley says:

    I like a little body language. Hey, that could be a title – Body Language 🙂

    I think like anything else in writing that there needs to be balance. Body language should be one of the many seasons that create flavor. Too much and it draws too much attention, too little and it’s bland.

    Great post 🙂

    • Rita Henuber says:

      I think it also depends on who your character is and what they do. Young lovers with their gentle touches and glances. An interrogating police officer evaluates suspects pretty much the same way a mom does her children but asks different questions. A CIA agent is always looking for telltale signs that the people he’s with could be lying.
      And yes everything is writing is about balance.

  7. Great post, Rita! Nonverbal communication is as important as verbal, in my opinion (both in real life and in books). Fabulous examples.

  8. Elisa Beatty says:

    Great examples, Rita–and I especially like all the “tells” for a bad guy!!

    Inappropriate touching….definitely ewwww factor!

  9. Angela L says:

    I am ok with SOME pointers on the body language in literature— I am already paying attention to the story/characters.

    Real people–oh yeah, I would love to have someone whispering in my ear “pay attention, ‘cuz this is going to explode & you don’t wanna be here”.


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