by Gina Burgess
We are writers, wordsmiths, creating in a 2-dimensional world in black and white. Exactly why we need to study body language.
One of the most difficult points of view to write in is first person. If not for any other reason but that you can’t head hop into another character to view the world from their side. So you have to depend upon your main character to notice those tell-tale signs of what’s going on in other characters’ minds. Body language is the perfect foil to head hopping “illegally.”
Did you know that placing a hand on a hand is quite different than placing a hand on a shoulder? Hand-on-hand means slight friendship, hand on elbow means more friendliness and is better suited to co-workers. The hand to elbow is short of violating personal space, but indicates a trustfulness relationship between people who are more than acquaintances. But hand-on-should means deep friendship, liking, and even a great deal of trust. Hand-on-back is an even deeper level of trust.
Crossed arms and/or legs indicates resistance to what is being heard. It means the person is emotionally as well as physically blocked from the situation.
Dr. Travis Bradbury says, “Posture tells the story. Have you ever seen a person walk into a room, and immediately, you have known that they were the one in charge? That effect is largely about body language, and often includes an erect posture, gestures made with the palms facing down, and open and expansive gestures in general. The brain is hardwired to equate power with the amount of space people take up. Standing up straight with your shoulders back is a power position; it appears to maximize the amount of space you fill. Slouching, on the other hand, is the result of collapsing your form; it appears to take up less space and projects less power. Maintaining good posture commands respect and promotes engagement, whether you’re a leader or not.”
I didn’t know that. But it makes sense. It’s also why a lot of teachers use a lot of expansive gestures.
Positive body language that your main character can interpret include: Moving or leaning in closer; relaxed, uncrossed limbs; long periods of eye contact; looking down and away out of shyness; genuine smiles that bring in the whole face with crinkling eyes.
Negative body language could include: Moving or leaning away from you; crossed arms or legs; looking away to the side; feet pointed away from you, or towards an exit; rubbing/scratching their nose, eyes, or the back of their neck.
Sure people can fake body language, but there are some things that indicate genuineness. One body language expert on a documentary I was watching mentioned the lip curl as a good indicator when someone was telling the truth in a story he was telling. The curl of the man’s lip was quick but noticeable. The expert said she was 95% sure the story was true because the man was reacting to a memory when his lip curled in disgust. The quickness of the action showed it was not premeditated but came from the memory.
Another signal of deceit could be in raised eyebrows. There are three main reasons you raise you eyebrows: surprise, worry, and fear. If the context of the dialogue does not align with those three emotions, then something else is going on most likely.
Some die-hard creative writers argue that elaborating on body language such as lighting a cigarette is more theatrical than something that would move the story forward. Can you imagine the X-Files without the Smoking Man smoking a cigarette?
Do we need to explain why we mention body language in our stories?
So how do you use body language in your stories?