Tuesday, January 19, 2016

How to Subtly Boost Your Dialogue’s Power With Body Language

By Alex Limberg, @RidethePen

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: It's funny that writing a good story depends a lot on what not being said. It's a constant balance between giving our readers the information they need to understand the story, and holding enough back so they can lose themselves in that story and make their own assumptions and judgements about it. Alex Limberg visits the lecture hall today to share some tips on one great way to say a lot without saying anything--body language. 

Alex is blogging on ‘Ride the Pen’ to help you boost your fiction writing. His blog dissects famous authors (works, not bodies). Create intriguing descriptions of body language or any other story part with his free ebook “44 Key Questions” to test your story (download here)or check out his creative writing exercises. Shakespeare is jealous. Alex has worked as a copywriter and lived in Vienna, Los Angeles, Madrid and Hamburg.

Website | Facebook | Twitter

Take it away Alex...

Our bodies have a life of their own. They always speak the truth. We will never be able to truly hide what we think and feel, because our body language will always give it away.

That makes body language a wonderful tool for your story. How else could you tell your readers so easily, directly and graphically how your character feels without being completely obvious?

Describing your characters’ body language is great to make your dialogue more interesting and to add a little bit of variation and physicality. At the same time, body expressions make your characters feel like real human beings, driven by their emotions. You are also leaving subtle clues for the attentive reader.

When you describe body language, you can show what’s really going on under the surface, just by describing a simple physical look or movement.

You need to stick to a couple of basic rules though to smoothly incorporate facial expressions and gestures into your scene. Here is a short Body Language 101 that will help you “puppeteering” your characters’ bodies:

1. Use body language only occasionally

If you use body language too much, it will become annoying and obvious and lose its subtle qualities. Instead, only describe characters’ facial expressions and postures from time to time. Make them smoothly blend in with the dialogue and the other scenic description!

Sneak your body expressions into the mix unobtrusively. Don’t forget that you have several other options to “tag” and break up your dialogue lines:
  • You could use a dialogue tag (“Let’s go to the party then,” Sandra squeaked.)
  • You could describe what the characters are doing (“Let’s go to the party then!” Sandra held the invitation out to him.)
  • You could describe what else is happening in the scene (“Let’s go to the party then!” Suddenly the doorbell rang.)
  • You could just leave the dialogue line standing alone (“Let’s go to the party then!”)
  • You could describe a facial expression, posture or movement of the character who is speaking and put it directly before or after his dialogue line, to let the reader connect the dots himself (“Let’s go to the party then!” Sandra’s face lit up.)

Try to vary these options, so none of them gains the upper hand and becomes too much. That way you will get a well-balanced and structured scene that pays equal attention to dialogue, characters, and descriptions.

When you insert body language, always do it in passing and don’t give any extra weight to what you describe.

2. Let body language stand for itself

If you want to look really stupid, you could write like this:
“So surely you can tell me where you were on the evening of the twenty-second of October?” George asked with eyes narrowed to slits, because he felt very suspicious about Blake’s story.

This example does both, showing and telling. That’s one too many, and the too many one is the telling part! Cut out “because he felt very suspicious about Blake’s story.”

When you write like this, you also take your reader for stupid. Let her connect the dots herself – if she has followed the story, she will know why Georg’s eyes are pressed to slits.

Try it like this:
“So surely you can tell me where you were on the evening of the twenty-second of October?” George asked with eyes narrowed to slits.

That’s much better, now we don’t even have to go inside George’s head artificially, we can just describe objectively what the reader sees.

Whenever possible, don’t name the feeling, but just show the body language. And definitely never put both of them (body language and description of feeling) together in the same sentence.

Showing, not telling is often not easy to do when you are caught up in the writing process. That’s why above this post you can download a free goodie to check your story’s descriptions (and many other elements); it uses test questions.

3. Have a very clear idea what your character is feeling

You might be the perfectionist writer type who is overthinking the “don’t be obvious” tip. The outcome might be something like this:
“Randy held one hand in his other behind his back, then suddenly stroked his throat while he was leaning towards Kirsten.”

What’s happening here? Nobody knows, Randy’s behavior is too much. As far as we are aware, it doesn’t make any sense. It seems like the writer paid attention to the finer tones so much that in the end he is not really saying anything.

Don’t write so cryptically that nobody can understand where your character is coming from. A simple description of one body language expression or movement at a time is absolutely enough.You, the author, always have to be absolutely clear about what your characters are feeling. Their body language has to match those feelings.

4. Describe body language intuitively

But where can you take an accurate description for flattery or envy from?

Your best bet is to take it from yourself. Imagine you feel flattered by an enormous compliment, like the best compliment ever. What expressions would your face, your arms,your body be making? Totally immerse yourself in the feeling like a good actor, and see which body expression fits.

Remember the last time you felt really envious about somebody? Use that memory to immerse yourself in the feeling for a second and ask yourself how your body would react.

Reading a book about body language is also an excellent idea. The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan and Barbara Pease is a very systematic and comprehensive guide to everything you ever wanted to know about body language. I recommend it whole-heartedly.

5. Several kinds of body language you can use

Our bodies have several ways of giving our secrets away. Here are some examples and a bit of inspiration on what’s possible:
  • Facial expressions: The human face is an endless source of expressions. Think of raised eyebrows, tightly pressed lips, blown up cheeks, wrinkled noses, wide eyes, frowned brows, poked out tongues, widened nostrils… every feeling shows through several features you can use
  • Body postures: Crossed arms, legs wide apart, foot put forward, leaned back upper body, spread elbows, locked ankles, body pointing away, tilted head… all of these have something very distinctive to say
  • Body movements: Adjusting tie, nibbling on temple of glasses, whipping foot, raising hand with palm toward opposite, flicking the hair, putting hands in pockets, grabbing the other’s upper arm, scratching one’s nose… do you know what all of these mean?

Equipped with all of this knowledge, you now have an extremely elegant and effective way to describe what’s really happening in your scene under the surface.You can now go fill your characters with overflowing emotions and life.

Once you manage to describe how their feelings subconsciously pour out of them, your figures will automatically take on a life of their own and feel like they were standing next to you in your living room. And your reader won’t be able to keep from loving or loathing them whole-heartedly.

Now it’s your turn: Do you usually use body language in your scenes or not? Do you have any standard tricks to describe it? Definitely share your thoughts, wins and problems with us in the comments!


  1. My problem is either too much or not enough. I love dialogue and others tell me it's my greatest strength and I tend to write first drafts with chunks of untagged dialogue. Then I go back and start tagging and/or layering in the body language. Critique partners will tell me I don't have enough so I add more, then they say it's too busy.

    Is there a way to tell when you have a happy medium? Or is it trial and error?

    1. Difficult to describe a happy medium in two paragraphs.

      It's some variation, hardly a repetition of the same means (tag/body language) right with the next dialogue line. And often it's best to just let the dialogue lines stand on their own.

      In the end, you are developing a great feeling for it while writing and also while reading good authors. Keep on taking action, keep on writing and you will totally figure it out for sure.

  2. The emotion thesaurus by Ackerman & Puglisi is a wonderful guide that gives physical signals, internal sensations, mental response and cues for over 100 emotions. Highly recommended.

    1. Haven't checked it out yet, but Becca and Angela are great.

      I can't recommend relying on a thesaurus for your entire writer life though. Learning to draw from your own experience is valuable to keep that muscle of imagination strong.

    2. I agree, but sometimes reading about different reactions can trigger memories of my own experiences, too. And the thesaurus has over 50 not 100 emotions, my mistake. Thanks for the article!

  3. Thank you. This was timely. I used the advice while working on a flash fiction story today. I love it when I can use something right away.

    1. Awesome, that's the best case.

      You can also keep advice engrained in your memory way better once you have applied it.

  4. I like your breakdown here! I use a rule of thumb "Think / Feel / Do" when describing my characters in action. I think readers are always wondering about these three categories. If you can hint at each, either through words, thoughts, actions (including body language), and emotions (also through body language and metaphor), then the reader can slip into the character, worry about them, and be in the story.

    1. Very useful way of looking at it, I like it. It makes for a nice balance.

      Too many thoughts are boring, but at a certain point too much action is boring too. Too many feelings can be annoying, like the reader is trapped inside the characters head or body.

      The sweet spot, as so often, is a nice middle point.

  5. Excellent post. Will save for future reference. Thanks

  6. Thanks for this. I will be posting the link on my blog. Great stuff.

  7. I have made a start with action and dialogue, but having read this article, it is clear that I haven't utlilized the full range of body language I could hvae. Thanks for this- an informative read.

  8. I have a character that tends to express a lot of anger though glaring eyes, baring his teeth, flaring his nostrils, clenching his fists, turning red, or having the internal sensation that his blood is boiling. You mentioned not using body language too much or it will annoy the reader. I don't use all of these things at once, but have tried to use different ones in different situations. But he's really angry a lot, so I'm worried I might have overdone it. How do you balance the showing of body language when you have an over-the-top emotional character?

  9. I think I have hands, legs, moving around too much. I didn't know this thank you I'll go fix it now. I guess its the same problem as with the dialing tag said. Writers get sick of it so use everything else, the same with facial expressions I felt Like I used them to much so cut them way down.

    Rats, another thing to fix. When does it end?

  10. Thank you for this article. I have been doing this in my dialogue but I wasn't sure if it was amateurish. Having read this, I now feel confident I am doing the right thing. Now I just have to make sure I'm not doing too much of it!