How to Write Body Language

Writers live in this 2-dimensional world struggling to make it (along with their reader’s excellent imagination) a living, breathing world of 4-dimensions. Real. Sometimes we hit the mark and other times not. [This article is directed toward the less experienced writer. I’d really like for the more veteran writers to offer guidance to Sprout Writers in the comments section. I love seeing how words create new worlds and environments with “real” people.]

There is one obstacle that will bite us every time and that is communication among characters. Dialogue is crucial, but that is only part of communicating. Body language and tonal qualities make up the majority of communication. Several professors take umbrage at the percentages allotted to body and verbal language, so I won’t give them. However, we all know that you can sling a horrific insult at  someone with a certain tonal quality and a certain facial expression and get a laugh rather than a punch in the face, but stand up and give a speech and you don’t need a lot of body language to communicate well.

Without belaboring the point too much, body language is crucial in our day to day communication with tone of voice closing in the third side of the triangle.

You can’t see a smile over the phone or through an email, but you can hear the smile and in email you can see the emoticon :). But publishers of fiction (and non-fiction) don’t use emoticons, so writers have to create/show emotions with words.

Somehow suddenly that feels like I have a craggy mountain to climb.

In an earlier post, we talked about why body language. Today it is the best way how to use body language. Of course you need to know what different things mean in order to use it effectively. There are basics like what Amanda Patterson came up with in her Cheat Sheets for Writers — how to write body language.  You can click on the link and download the cheat sheets. They can prove immensely helpful as tags.

Okay, okay. There are a lot of different definitions for tags. My definition is that tags are words and phrases that indicate who is speaking and/or what the speaker is doing. It can be as simple as “Where are you going?” Suzie asked. Or as complicated as, “Where,” Suzie leaned against the door jamb and watched Ted shave, “are you going?”

I do not adhere to the “rule” that adverbs are evil and need to be tossed. I’ll use ly-words prolifically when describing how a character is talking or acting. For me, it’s a matter of word economy.

“Where,” Suzie whispered angrily watching Ted shave,“do you think you are going?” but to use body language for economy (and I think better writing) I come up with something like this: “Where,” Suzie’s lip curled as the razor scraped Ted’s jaw, “do you think you are going?”

The tag is the crucial part of setting up the whole scene.  The lip curl lets the reader know that Suzie is angry or disgusted (or maybe something smells bad.) The dialogue following the question will clear it up. There is no need to write a long paragraph explaining why Suzie is angry at Ted. Let her body language and dialogue do it for you. This is superior showing not telling.

“Where,” Suzie’s lip curled as the razor scraped Ted’s jaw, “do you think you are going?” She stomped over to stare narrowly at him through the mirror. “It’s bad enough you leave your dirty clothes strewn about but you’ve been out every night this week.” She jabbed his shoulder, “When will it stop, Ted?” Bursting into tears, she choked, “When will it stop?”

Notice “razor scraping Ted’s jaw” gives a more sinister sense to the scene. Whereas in the scene below, “watching Ted shave” is more innocuous because the word “seductively” sets the tone of the scene.

“Where,” Suzie whispered seductively watching Ted shave, “do you think you are going?” She sauntered behind him and rested her chin on his shoulder, grinning. “I bought something special just for you. It’s short, black, and see-through.” Her gaze softened with love and she kissed his shoulder.

Is this great writing? Well, in a way it is. When writers slip into purple prose drawing undue attention to the words rather than the story, I call that Ego kidnapping the story line. The writer is more interested in how lovely the words go together, and how wonderful the phrasing is, and how poetic the narrative is. Economy of words strips Ego of prideful writing and opens the door to a great reading experience for the reader. Now that is what a writer wants more than anything because that means a reader will keep coming back for more great experiences.

From an editor’s point of view, the writer needs to be married to the ideas expressed and not to the words.

Gina Burgess is an editor, illustrator, and author. She is co-founder of Common Sense Marketing Strategies, LLC and Christian She writes a weekly column at and her favorite pastime is playing with her five grandchildren.

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