Speaking Without Words – Writing Body Language

speakingWhen you’re watching a movie, you can see the actors as they deliver their lines. You can see the expressions they make, and you can hear their tone of voice. Seeing them talk tells you a lot more about what they’re saying than just the words they’re using.

When you’re reading a text, you only have the words the writer gives you. The rest you have to make up yourself. As a writer, you have to take that into account.

In theory you could write down exactly everything that the character speaking does – every single motion, conscious or not. In practice, that would be nigh impossible, and it would almost certainly be incredibly dull.

To get around this you have to pick your words carefully and decide what you want to show and what you want to leave out. You have to choose what most clearly reveals the emotions of your character as they speak. Just remember that anything you leave out is something the reader can – and will – form their own ideas about, so be careful.

A while back I made an experiment. I’d written a scene, and after I received some feedback on it I decided I should rewrite it. It was a conversation between three people, and I liked how the words flowed back and forth between the characters so I was reluctant to scrap it completely.

Instead, I decided to try something else, just for fun, to see if it worked: I’d keep the words the characters spoke, but I’d rewrite everything else.

It worked out pretty well, and the scene changed quite significantly, even if the characters still said the same things. That probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it’s a good example of the impact beats and tags can have on a conversation.

Why is this important?

It all depends on what you want to do with your story and your conversations. Sometimes, you just want to a quick exchange of words between characters to explain to the reader what’s going on. In those cases, the emotional states of the characters involved probably aren’t that important.

Other times, you’ll want the reader to really connect with your character on a personal and emotional level and then the words they say may not be enough. In these cases, showing the actions and reactions of the character as they speak can be vitally important.

Let’s have a look at some examples. I’ll present two snippets of conversation and explain in detail what’s going on with the characters.

Keep in mind that writing isn’t an exact science, and that what works for me, may not work for you. I’m not trying to tell you that this is how you should do it, or that this is the right way. I do hope I can give you some ideas or inspiration for things to try in your own writing though.

In the examples, all lines are numbered for easier reference.

Example 1

This exchange takes place at the village inn, right at the start of a new scene, where Emma and Torkel sit alone at a table. At the end of the previous scene it was made very clear that things are a bit strained between Emma and Torkel and that the silence is dragging out between them.

  1. So, uhm…” Torkel cleared his throat and stared down into his mug.
  1. Emma straightened up. “Do you want me to bring you anything from Kuulis Wood?” She shot him a big smile. “They have a shop there you know. You can get almost anything.”
  1. Torkel stroked his chin and frowned, but didn’t raise his eyes to look at her. “Nah… I’m good.”
  1. Okay. Good.” She sipped her cider. “Just checking.”
  1. But, well… I was just thinking… You know…”
  1. Yes?”

In the first line, Torkel doesn’t say anything meaningful at all. He starts to speak, but trails off. Clearing your throat is often an indication that you’re about to say something, but despite this, Torkel remains silent. It’s like he tries and then tries again, without getting a word out.

The fact that he’s staring down into his mug indicates he’s nervous. It doesn’t explicitly say that he bows his head, but he sits at the table with his mug in front of him, so he probably does. Hanging your head can be taken as a sign of shame or submission.

Perhaps most importantly, and not mentioned at all, is that Torkel is not looking at Emma.

It should be clear from the beats in this line that Torkel is nervous about something. He’s feeling the awkwardness of the situation.

In the second line it’s Emma’s turn to act and speak. She straightens up and shoots Torkel a big smile. This is in stark contrast to Torkel’s behaviour in the previous line, and the words she’s saying are almost completely unrelated to anything they’ve talked about previously.

What Emma is doing is she’s trying to break the awkward silence and get a conversation going about something neutral and harmless – anything at all that’s not related to their relationship issues. She puts on a cheerful air, and tries to bring up something fun and exciting.

In the third line, Torkel is having none of it. He refuses to look at her and he’s not picking up on her offer of something to talk about. Instead, he frowns, which signals he’s still troubled, and he strokes his chin like he’s deep in thought – perhaps he’s not even listening.

Overall, it’s a pretty awkward situation.

In the fourth line, Emma’s speaks without really saying anything. It’s not the words themselves that are important, but rather the act of speaking them. The same goes for the act of sipping her cider. The line on its own wouldn’t have told us very much, but taken in the context of the previous two lines it gains significance.

What Emma is doing is she scrambles to fill the silence after Torkel shot down her attempt at conversation.

The fifth line is just words, with no beats and no tags, but it should be clear that it’s Torkel speaking. The ellipses serve to signify that he’s still a little bit uncertain about what he wants to say.

At this stage, the reader should already feel the awkward mood of the conversation and there shouldn’t be any need to underline it further. In fact, adding more beats or tags here might even diminish the effect of the uttered words. If I’ve portrayed Torkel right, the reader will already imagine him squirming and fidgeting without me having to tell them about it.

It’s much the same with the sixth line. The short, one-word sentence indicates that the reply comes quickly. Again, if I’ve done Emma right, my reader will know by themselves how she feels in this moment.

Hopefully, if it all works out, the awkwardness of the situation will rub off on the reader and they will be as eager as Emma to find out what Torkel has to say.

Example 2

This example is from a few chapters later in the same story. Emma has just arrived in the village of Kuulis Wood, which is a much bigger village than the one she’s lived in all her life. She’s entered the village’s inn and she’s walked over to the counter to talk to the woman standing behind it. At this stage Emma is worn and tired from having spent the entire day on the road.

  1. Good evening. How can I help you?” Without taking her eyes off Emma, the woman put the mug she’d been drying down on the counter and fished up another from a tub of water. “I’m Trula. Welcome to Kuulis Wood.” She wiped at the mug with the rag, held it up in front of her eyes to study a spot on the side, and then put it down next to the tub. “Hungry? Thirsty?”
  2. Greetings Trula. I’m Emma, from Rastebo.” She bowed her head and curtsied. “I’m here to seek the ear of your village elder.”
  3. Seek the ear?” Trula raised an eyebrow. “It was still attached to his head last I saw.”
  4. Emma’s back grew rigid, and she struggled to keep her face neutral. “Ehmm…”

The first line gives Trula a lot of space. There’s a description of what she looks like in an earlier paragraph, but this is the the first time we get a glimpse of who she is as a person.

Like in the previous example, the eyes are important. Trula keeps her eyes on Emma without looking away. This is a show of strength and confidence, and it establishes a certain level of superiority.

On top of that, Trula performs her task without looking – another sign of confidence, showing she knows what she’s doing. In this way she claims her domain and underlines how she’s the one in charge. We get a glimpse of her as the cool, hip person from the big village.

The next part of the line emphasises this even further. Instead of attending to the newcomer, Trula focuses on something else, making Emma wait. Not until she’s done does she ask if her guest wants food or drink.

In the second line, Emma bows her head, and like with Torkel in the previous example this is a sign of submission. Emma also shows off her polite manners – a stark contrast to Trula’s display of arrogance.

These two lines serve to establish Trula as the stronger, more dominant actor, while Emma is outside of her comfort zone, feeling nervous and insecure.

And then, in the third line, as if Emma’s not uncomfortable enough, Trula goes and makes fun of her.

Trula repeats a phrase Emma used, turns it into a question, and raises her eyebrow at it. She’s questioning Emma’s choice of words, maybe even mocking her, and then she goes and cracks a stupid joke. That’s not very nice.

By now, the reader should be well aware that Emma’s in a new and unfamiliar situation. Right now she’s a bit of and underdog, but normally that’s not the case. When she’s in her own element, she’s more than able to stand up for herself, and the reader has seen her do it more than once already. This should help them identify with the reactions in the fourth line.

Emma stiffens up and tries her best to look unbothered. She’s taken aback by the unexpected comment from Trula and she doesn’t quite know how to react. Will she take it on the chin and accept being made fun of, or will she snap back and give Trula a piece of her mind?

Again, she’s in an awkward situation, but it’s a different kind of awkwardness compared to the previous example.

Commentary

Both of the examples above are analysed in quite some detail. I can’t honestly claim that I thought about all those things when I wrote the conversations. What I did do was try to picture the scene in my mind and then pick out the details that felt like they most strongly communicated the mood of the characters.

Similarly, I don’t expect the reader to consciously think about all the implications of what I describe. Instead, I’m hoping that the reactions and motions I’ve chosen to portray are such that the reader associates them with the emotions of the characters.

If I get it right, the reader will be able to more strongly identify with the characters and what they’re going through. If they figure out on their own that Emma is nervous and feeling awkward, they’ll gain a stronger, more intuitive understanding of it than if I just wrote “Trula was being arrogant” or “Emma felt awkward.”

In this way, the beats used in the conversation become just as important as what the characters say.

For Further Discussion

It can be difficult to figure out what motions and expressions go with a certain motion or state of mind. Often, when trying to figure out how a character behaves, I find myself acting out their lines in real life. I grimace and make faces and wave my arms in the air as if it was really me delivering the lines. It looks silly, and sometimes people look at me funny, but it works for me.

What methods do you have for deciding what motions to show?

Seeing as most readers probably won’t analyse the beats in any greater detail, is it really worth spending time and effort on them?

Will the reader instinctively pick up on the emotions from the descriptions, or are the descriptions just getting in the way of the story?

Nils Ödlund is a writing and fantasy enthusiast. He's currently chipping away at a series of novellas about the adventures of two shape shifters and a paladin, while at the same time trying to crack the secrets of storytelling. Ödlund lives in Cork, Ireland. When not writing, he enjoys exploring the countryside on foot, and when the weather gets too bad he'll stay home and play games on the computer (or write some more). You can follow Ödlund on his blog (link just above) where he mostly posts pictures of coffee, beer, and the Irish countryside, as well as the occasional update on his writing progress.

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Scott W
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Scott W

Very good tips here. I still know of some writers who’ve been doing it for a while that still haven’t figured how to use body language to convey words. I feel when you’re constantly using “he said, she said”, you’re dumbing down your story…..and not doing any favors to the reader. When I got into writing, it was because the authors I read piqued my imagination with their style….and that’s what I aim to do with mine. Granted, not everyone will like it…some say it’s too difficult, and those people are the ones I’m assuming aren’t huge readers.

librarylady
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librarylady

Good advice. I liked what you said in response to one of your commenters about how to structure the conversation. I’ve often wondered how to avoid the Emma said, Torkel said,” trap, and I’m glad you pointed out how to avoid this. As a writer I often entertain yself by watching people interact (try not to be too obvious or you get strange looks) and thinking how I’d write the scene. People watching is also a great way to pick up on body language and how people react in different situations.
As always, great post.

sara
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sara

This was very enlightening thank you, i’m new so maybe it has been covered, but my biggest(so far) set back, worry, is how to structure my conversations… i know he said she said is bad, or boring, but i recently read that even adding an adjective of said can be bad…. also, structuring thoughts… do you structure it like a conversation, or different, that’s driving me crazy, also, if in first person, is there too much inner monologue….

Britanica
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Britanica

I like to write so the process of writing body language has always been a fun one. When you explain an action with little or no words in text form, it makes the reader feel like they are there and can see the picture in their head more clearly. Great tips!

Helio
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Helio

Thanks for this Nils, this was one of the best articles I have read. I would love to see more tips like this in future articles. I think that, as humans, we actually do more communicating with our bodies then we do with our words… And we very rarely say exactly what we are thinking. I loved your examples!

Russ
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Russ

Very good article on an important, but under discussed subject. If people use some of your techniques to analyse their own work it will definately improve their writing. Once of the best articles I have had the pleasure of reading on MS.

Grace Allison
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Grace Allison

I use an emotional thesaurus … helpful for body language

Arranah
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Arranah

It’s always been hard for me to know how much detail to include around conversations. At first I added way too much. Next I went to the other extreme and didn’t add enough. My publisher added ly adverbs, which I had so carefully avoided. On the advice of my agent I’d allowed the publisher to do that. Big mistake. Balance can be hard to achieve.

You make good points.

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