Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor
zette@cableone.net

 

Did You Forget Body Language?

By Karen Kincy
© 2005,
Karen Kincy


Have you forgotten to use body language in your stories? I'm guilty of this. More often than I'd like to admit, my characters are "talking heads" when they speak. My dialogue is bare of accompanying physical description. In real life, we rely heavily on gestures and facial cues. All too often ambiguous e-mails cause misunderstandings -- yet the tone of these words would be obvious if they were said face-to-face. Since body language is so important for communication, it seems odd that I forgot this in fiction. Fortunately, its lack can be remedied.

The easiest and probably most accurate way to add body language to your fiction is to observe people in real life. Whenever you're people-watching, study their faces, postures, and gestures. Take notes in the field or write your observations down later.

When you get back to your manuscript, keep your notes nearby so you can spice up your writing. You might try labeling your field observations according to emotions -- easier when done on the computer. The “Find” feature of Microsoft Word is invaluable when searching for the most apt description.

If you're like me, you might fall in love with some of your finds and use them to death. My poor readers sigh, "Another character is pursing her lips?" Try to mark off a description as "taken" after you use it. If it's ordinary enough to be used again, try to keep it at least a dozen pages away from the first time it appears. If you're forced to cut a gem of a description from the manuscript, make sure you keep a copy in another place, so you can recycle it later.

Sometimes I write dialogue so fast I don't have time for description. I throw in the first things that come to mind -- "she smiled," "he nodded." These simple actions can serve their purpose well, if not overused. While in the polishing stage, you might want to enhance them with character-unique descriptions or metaphors. "He smiled, baring yellowed teeth." Or, "Her lips curved into the smile of a Greek statue."

If you've used up all your field observations, look to yourself next. You might not notice all your body language quirks in action. Ask a friend what you look like when talking, sitting, joking, and so on. Make faces in a mirror, pretending to be pensive, angry, sad, etc. You might find books on acting helpful.

Finally, there's the scholarly approach to body language. Search the Internet for "body language," "nonverbal communication," and "kinesics" for a start. Here are some links I found helpful:

The Nonverbal Dictionary: http://members.aol.com/nonverbal2/diction1.htm

Nonverbal Communication Links: http://www3.usal.es/%7Enonverbal/introduction.htm

Examples of Body Language:
http://www.deltabravo.net/custody/body.htm

 

Try reading your dialogue out loud. This is an invaluable way to test its authenticity, and if you pay attention to your physical reactions, you can add them in. If a fictional argument gets your fists clenched (or you meant it to), try adding those clenched fists to your character. This will help the reader feel what the character is feeling. If you're having trouble acting out a particular scene, perhaps you haven't delved deep enough into the emotions of your characters.

Another revealing exercise is having a trusted friend read your dialogue to you. If they're unsure of what tone to use, or say the words much differently than you had intended, you may want to add more body language, rewrite the dialogue, or both.

Carefully season your dialogue with body language. Too much, and it will slow the pace to a crawl. Too little, and your readers won't be sure how the characters feel. Of course, these are all matters of style. Experiment until you find your favorite recipe.

For example, here's an exchange between two characters that I think should be enhanced:

Example #1

Ylva said, "Theodorik Blakkvor stopped by earlier today, while you were in the meadow."

Ravelda asked, "Who?"

"Don't you remember him? You met him when you were about five winters old. He's short, with a crooked nose."

Ravelda frowned. "I don't remember anything from that long ago."

Could Theodorik be my father? When she was little, she used to pretend her father was talking to her, and they would have long conversations in her head. But she could never truly hear his voice.

Ravelda tried to smile. "Is Theodorik your sweetheart?"

Ylva shook her head. "Certainly not. He's an old friend, you know that."

If I overdid the body language, it would be something like this:

Example #2

Ylva swallowed a mouthful of soup and dabbed her lips with deliberation. She glanced at her daughter, lips tight, and released a sigh. "Theodorik Blakkvor stopped by earlier today, while you were in the meadow."

Ravelda's ears pricked, her heartbeat quickening. "Who?"

"Don't you remember him?" Ylva furrowed her brow. Her fingers tightened around her spoon. "You met him when you were about five winters old. He's short, with a crooked nose."

Ravelda squinted as she thought, staring at the ceiling. She rubbed her chin. "I don't remember anything from that long ago."

A familiar knot tightened in her stomach. She folded her hands in her lap and looked away from her mother. Could Theodorik be my father? When she was little, she used to pretend her father was talking to her, and they would have long conversations in her head. But she could never truly hear his voice.

Ravelda bounced her leg to release nervous energy and tried to smile teasingly. She kept her eyes on her mother's, watching for annoyance. "Is Theodorik your sweetheart?"

Ylva snorted. "Certainly not." She tugged her bowl closer and began eating faster. "He's an old friend, you know that."

Here's the final version, seasoned just right, in my opinion:

Example #3

Ylva swallowed a mouthful of soup and sighed. "Theodorik Blakkvor stopped by earlier today, while you were in the meadow."

Ravelda's ears pricked. "Who?"

"Don't you remember him? You met him when you were about five winters old. He's short, with a crooked nose."

Ravelda squinted as she thought. "I don't remember anything from that long ago."

A familiar knot tightened in her stomach. Could Theodorik be my father? When she was little, she used to pretend her father was talking to her, and they would have long conversations in her head. But she could never truly hear his voice.

Ravelda bounced her leg to release nervous energy and tried to smile teasingly. "Is Theodorik your sweetheart?"

Ylva snorted. "Certainly not. He's an old friend, you know that."

After you've worked on your fictional body language, your characters will come alive.