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The Human Touch – Using Body Language in Writing November 18, 2009

Posted by techtigger in Uncategorized.

Did you ever look at your manuscript and realize that your characters have been grinning, frowning and glaring at each other for the past 40 pages? I know I am one of the worst offenders when it comes to using the dreaded ‘ing’ and ‘ly’ in a story. Yeah, sure, the eyes are the key to the soul, and a smile is worth a thousand words but what is the rest of their body doing? We don’t all just walk around grinning at each other all day.

I think the reason so many new writers like myself fall into this trap, is that our reaction to body language is more instinctual than intellectual. Writing is an intellectual exercise, you sit for hours and think about how to string words together. It’s all too easy to forget that the physical body interacts with the world around it.

For example, you can say ‘she whispered seductively in his ear’ and you’ll get the point across. The problem is that your brain thinks only about how the voice sounds, the rest of body is left out. Now, try this: her lips brushed his ear as she whispered, “yes.” Yeowza, fireworks! Your body reacts in a more visceral way to the physical interaction.

This is something I’ve been working on in my writing. Every time I come across an ing, ly, or mere facial expression I try to think of what else their body is doing while they talk. They don’t say something teasingly, they tweak the other person’s nose. They don’t look bored, they check their watch. Take time to pay attention to what you do when you’re feeling sheepish, do you shuffle your feet? Rub the back of your head?

Another thing to remember is that things make sounds when you interact with them. The world is a noisy place. You don’t just lean back in a chair, the chair creaks as you lean back in it. You don’t just walk through snow, it crunches beneath your feet.

And don’t forget textures, describing how something feels can be an important cue for your reader. If your character is studying something carefully, have them run their finger along the slick surface, or recoil from the sharp spines. Just try not to over-use the word ‘like’ when you describe things. I remove that word as much as possible from my stories. If you use like, you’re not engaging the body, you are intellectually describing an object. Again, no visceral reaction. “His pants got soaked, and clung like soggy newspaper.” vs “The damp fabric clung to his legs.” It’s easy to see which gets more of a reaction.

Another trick I like to use is mixing body language with dialogue. This is an example from a flash fiction story I’m in the midst of editing. I started with this:

He grinned at her. “You have the prettiest blue eyes.”

The blue eyes glared back at him.

That’s fun, but I wanted to turn up heat between the characters. Here is the edit:

He leaned against the doorway. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re beautiful when you glare? It’s those blue eyes, they cut right through you.”

In two lines we have a description how he interacts with the room, and the playful tone comes through without the grin. You even get a description of how she looks (blue eyes) and what she’s doing (glaring). It’s all done with body language and physical descriptions. Sure, you can use facial expressions from time to time, but don’t let your readers ride passively along through the whole story. Make them feel it. That’s the heart of the whole ‘show don’t tell’ thing. We are creatures of instinct, and body language is the key to putting your readers right inside the scene.



1. Sam - November 18, 2009

My goodness, what a brilliant post! Just what I’ve been looking for – a practical (and very sensible) method of illustrating how to get those facial expressions into words. IMHO, you rock! 😀

2. yearzerowriters - November 18, 2009

Good stuff. I’d far rather have less dialogue and more about what their hands are doing, or what their eyes are settling on while someone is talking to them. Dialogue in a film or stage play has the advantage of an actor saying them – you can see their face. Too many lines of dialogue in a novel and you can’t keep writing how it is said, or the read grinds to a halt.

“Staring into his unblinking, guillotine eyes and seeing the inevitable verdict” – see, no dialogue!

techtigger - November 18, 2009

you know, I find that I use more dialogue in short peices, and more descriptions in long ones. I have no idea if that’s right or wrong, but that’s what seems to work for me 🙂

3. Marisa Birns - November 18, 2009

Wonderful post! Your examples told but also showed, which in this case did the job…and well.


4. Olivia Tejeda - November 18, 2009

Wonderful post! Thanks so much!

5. Laura Eno - November 18, 2009

Great post! Your examples were perfect.

6. Christina - November 19, 2009

Wonderful ideas! Thanks!

7. Cindy - November 19, 2009

Great Post. Thanks for pointing out the obvious. I think I need open that word doc of mine and peruse the content a little deeper.

8. Jessica Rosen - November 20, 2009

Terrific post and it couldn’t have come along at a better time. I just finished the ms to Book 3 in my series and am looking down the barrel of editing all three now. There are a mind numbing number of raised eyebrows, widened eyes and grins in these books. Your ideas and examples made me sit back and tap the arm of my chair. (See? Learning already.) Thanks for this article.

Take care,
Jessica Rosen

9. cnc999 - November 20, 2009

Thanks for the post; it comes at a good time. I figured this out about halfway through writing my first novel, but now I need to apply it back to the first half as I edit. I can picture my characters in my head so well; it’s time to let others in on what they are doing!

10. Breathe life into your characters using action | Brad’s Reader - November 20, 2009

[…] post has been inspired by another post I read from The Techtiggers’ Soapbox  called The Human Touch: Using Body Language in Writing. The post offers a great example of how using action really does liven up your characters: For […]

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