Why Body Language?

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?

14 thoughts on “Why Body Language?”

  1. This is my first visit to the site and I was interested in the comments on body language. I agree on almost everything. I would like to add to the remarks about raised eyebrows to indicate surprise, worry and fear. What about sarcasm? The put down? The ‘you didn’t know that? How odd…’ type of remark.
    I seldom describe body language myself when writing, but I do imply it. I always ‘watch’ the scenes I am writing. I try to take in body language, seldom using it in print, but making the reader “see” the scene as far as possible.

    1. Marjorie, I’m so glad you came to visit 🙂 I agree that those three surprise, worry, and fear don’t seem to cover all the raised eyebrows causes. I noticed when talking to someone yesterday that I disagreed with what was being said and I raised both my eyebrows. But usually when I’m being sarcastic, I just raise one eyebrow. Although, that tells me that even the experts don’t get it all. It is amazing all the nuances that body language can communicate!

  2. I incorporate body language in my writing as a terrific way to avoid the overuse of adverbs and adjectives. Instead of saying “he laughed loudly,” I might say “He threw back his head allowing barks of laughter to escape.”
    I use several references to aid me in finding the perfect physical expression of a particular emotion. One is The Emotion Thesaurus, the other The Dialogue Thesaurus.

    1. Joanne, I heartily agree! Just saying “her lips flattened and an angry spark glittered in her eyes” paints a word picture better than just saying, “The remark made her angry.” And you are right, it does avoid heavy usage of non-action verbiage. Great point!

  3. I used to use a thesaurus more than I do now. I try to observe a scene through other eyes; those of a character or an imagined observer. The other character(s) in the scene may discuss the body language later, but it will suffice for them to ‘see’ it and note it at the time.

    1. One problem that I see with depending on body language is that not all readers understand it well, and sometimes describing the body language can result in a convoluted paragraph.

  4. Thank you for this. I have been using body language very sparingly. Now I see that this is a technique I need to use more.

    I will take exception to a man lighting a cigarette. What does that show other than the man has a disgusting habit? Well, I can show he is stalling for time, but I can think of better ways to show that.

    Smoking is a social habit. Back when I was growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s smoking was socially acceptable and even encouraged, but about the only thing smoking activities did was show that the person was conforming with a behavior that “cool” people were expected to do. Now that smoking is recognized by most people as simply an addiction rather than “cool” behavior, any body language signals that used to be sent are not necessarily valid any more.

    While smoking is no longer encouraged, it is accepted in some circles. Any body language related to smoking today would be related to the inside expectation of such a social circle. Thus our use of smoking as body language will have to be used carefully and only in the context of such a group or era.

    1. Excellent point, Reynold, about the smoking thing… however, it can also depict an addictive personality, or someone that is trying to overcome an addiction but succumbs or reverts back to the habit because of intense stress. It can also be used as an indication of, as you say, certain social circles. Another use is when writing a period piece that takes place in the early to late 1900s when smoking was so prevalent in society. I used to smoke, but when I quit more than 20 years ago, I became one of those people I hated before I quit. Now when someone lights up, my nose scrunches and my lips curl in disgust. It could have that effect on your readers, too. Just sayin’ 🙂

  5. Since we talk about smoking: I have noticed that smokers in uncomfortable situations are lighting up to get attention away from something, they use it to prolong an answer, hide their eyes by focussing on what their fingers are doing, think of a lie, hide secrets, and often are unsure of themselves. If you are a good observer you will notice other body language associated with the obvious. But eyes, think about eyes! Watching eyes can tell you a lot about a person: look at you straight, look away from you to the right, to the left, down or up – the eyes tell a story of what is going on in the person’s head. There is a lot to body language as even a small gesture or movement can hurt your feelings.

  6. Thank you for this advice. I haven’t paid enough attention to body language descriptions when writing personal essays. I do notice when the body language in a piece I’m reading has consistent movements, which is always fun when those movements add up to mean something, or are used to tell more about a character.

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