Brave New World

(they always said that sex would change you)

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Ideas for using knowledge of body language in your writing
story of my life

I was recently reading a book on body language, initially for the purpose of improving my interpersonal skills, but it quickly occurred to me that another (and to me, more interesting) use of that information could be applying it to one's writing.

Writers are constantly being told to "show, don't tell" when it comes to describing a scene or an action. (This is generally good advice, though there are plenty of situations in which telling is the more expedient option.) What I've found is that when I'm really on my game, I can see the action rolling in my head like a movie and it translates seamlessly to prose. Other times, for whatever reason, I'm not feeling it and the result is inevitably un-fucking-readable.

My problem, personally, is that on a conscious level, I know very little about how to write -- I work on instinct, developed from having read a lot, but since I don't know anything about the technical aspects of writing, I have nothing to fall back on. When I'm not doing it instinctively, I can't string two words together.

Now I'm starting to suspect that a major factor in this "good writing vs. bad writing" business is descriptions (or lack thereof) of the characters' body language. When I'm not on my game, I don't see the action in my head, so descriptions of body language will drop out of my writing. It's not obvious, but I bet it really hurts the overall effectiveness.

Fabricated example of telling:

"I've told you this before," she said angrily.

Fabricated example of showing:

She drummed her fingers on the table. "I've told you this before."

I'm not putting either one of those examples out as the definitive right or wrong way to do it, nor is that an especially subtle example of showing. (Though reputable sources agree that the more you can get rid of -ly adverbs in your "he said"/"she said" tags, the better.) So how do you show emotion without resorting to phrases that are both vague and obvious like, "He was visibly uncomfortable" or "She looked like she was about to punch me in the teeth"? What exactly does someone look like when they're uncomfortable, or when they're about to throw a punch?

Well, the book I'm learning a lot from right now is What Every BODY Is Saying, by Joe Navarro, a former FBI expert on body language. (And yeah, he's way too fond of his puns, but I'm willing to forgive.) He classifies most body language indicators not on a continuum of honesty vs. dishonesty, but comfort vs. discomfort, and examines in detail what "tells" you can glean from each part of the body.

None of it's particularly novel when taken independently -- most of the behaviors are things we've all noticed ourselves doing before, though we may never have consciously identified the triggers that cause a particular reaction, or noticed that we make a gesture in some situations but not others.

For example, chest-crossing movements that bring the arms in front of the torso often indicate feelings of defensiveness. Obvious examples would be crossing one's arms, hugging one's shoulders, etc. (Jim Butcher drives me crazy with his sledgehammer-subtle use of this -- he's always making Murphy hug herself.)

But there are also many, many, many other ways this behavior can manifest. Women toying with a necklace or resting their knuckles at the base of their throat is less overt, but serves the same purpose of bringing the arms protectively in front of the chest. Men engage in various so-called "self-preening" activities, such as reaching across to fiddle with their watch or cuffs, or reaching up to adjust their tie. (In general, any motion that brings the hands up to touch the neck betrays discomfort.)

And the cool part is, if you just drop this into the description, I bet you a dollar the readers will pick up on it, without necessarily realizing they did. The viewpoint character doesn't have to bring attention to the action or think it significant, and they certainly don't have to interpret it for the reader: "I could tell by the way he was fidgeting that blah blah blah" = no. Just give the action: "He dropped his eyes, adjusting his cufflinks." It depends on the context, of course, but everyone knows, consciously or otherwise, the various things that avoiding eye contact might mean.

In fact, "I could tell that..." is probably a bad phrase all around. (Though I'm as guilty of it as anyone.) I haven't heard this confirmed elsewhere, but I suspect it would be more effective and more graceful to give the evidence and omit the conclusion. "I could tell that she still viewed me as a potential threat." How could he tell? Well, because she's putting a cautious distance between them and keeping her hand on her gun. Pretty damn obvious how she feels about him, and makes the POV character's statement unnecessary, almost redundant.

So what I've been doing as I read is taking notes, writing down for future reference what gestures telegraph what emotions. As much as writing is supposed to be a natural and spontaneous process, I have the sneaking suspicion that these gestures can be dropped into descriptors pretty much mechanically to achieve the right effect. I will experiment and get back to you.

[The rest is rambling about how I experimented with this in my own writing, which you're welcome to skip.]

The exercise I did to play with this newfound knowledge of body language was to revise an early scene in my space pirates story where the viewpoint character (Toric, professional criminal) has been captured by pirates and is meeting the captain (Nausikaeus) for the first time. Also present is Nausikaeus's sister, Vix (the "she" of most of the above example sentences). At this point, Toric knows absolutely nothing about either one of them, except that he'd initially thought Vix was the captain, from the deference that he saw in the other crew members' body language toward her. Toric's a good character to use for this experiment, because he has received military training in the past, and in his line of work it behooves him to be alert, so it makes sense that he would be more perceptive to nonverbal cues like this than a civilian character.

The original version of the scene wasn't bad, certainly, but when I started looking at it in terms of what the characters' body language was saying, not just the dialogue, I discovered that it lacked internal consistency. Nausikaeus is initially very busy, with lots of other things on his mind, and now suddenly he has to deal with this random yahoo who just killed three of his crew. Though Toric wins him over by the end of the scene, it's a process, and his body language needed to reflect his changing attitude. In the beginning, it had to be unreceptive, saying loud and clear, "If you want to save your life, talk good and talk fast."

The other element in the scene is Vix, who is not only Nausikaeus's sister but also his first mate, primary enforcer, right-hand (wo)man, and the person he trusts more than anyone else in his life. Even though she spends more time watching and listening than speaking in this scene, she's very much present for it. And although she and Nausikaeus were both raised to be undemonstrative in public, there would still be evidence of the very strong bond between them.

In both cases, there's a veritable checklist of the cues that telegraph impatience or hint at intimacy. And Toric, of course, is keeping a keen eye on these to figure out what interests Nausikaeus and what doesn't, and what he needs to say to keep himself alive. On the other hand, description of Toric's body language is all but absent unless he's doing it on purpose, because he's the POV character and we inevitably forget to monitor what we ourselves are doing.

In the end, I did more adding than changing, and I hardly touched the dialogue at all, but I'm much more pleased with the result. I feel like I have more control over what's going on and a better understanding of why certain parts work and others don't, rather than just the frustrating, hand-wavy magic of "inspiration."

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This is really helpful! I find myself using the same few adjectives or movements over and over and it's cool to learn of a resource to find more :) since I'm terrible at just watching people and pulling them from observation!

I agree, just watching people for tips is unlikely to be that helpful if you don't know what it is you're looking at. This book was like a checklist of what to pay attention to. (and lol, I sound like a shill, but whatever)

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This was entirely helpful, thanks for sharing!

I like to play this game when I read fic where I try to guess how crappy something is going to be by the first sentence or paragraph, and then pinpoint the exact reason for my guess mentally lecturing the writer on why they shouldn't have done that. Originally I just did it cause I'm mean, but after a while I realized it's actually an interesting exercise for figuring out what makes something good/bad and...making sure you don't do that. Hehe. ^_^; And I think the tendency to explain someone's attitude rather than let the reader figure it out by watching really was a common giveaway that something wasn't going to turn out particularly good.

What I struggle with in my (very, very limited) experience is internal monologues of characters thoughts on what they're seeing. Cause sometimes your POV character really could be making mental observations like "they're angry" and it woudn't be entirely inappropriate to mention that in some way, and in some cases it might even be necessary. Yet...I feel like a lot of the mental jabber in clumsy writing I've seen is unnecessary or even detrimental...and it can get so hard to tell the difference. *grumble grumble grumble curse you, stupid grey areas and the flexibility of "rules" on writing grumble grumble*

...But really what I came out of my hole to say was RAWR, WORD to the problems of writing instinctively thing. I mean, people say you're doing good and shoot irritated looks cause why the hell should you be doing good with so little practice, but blabbing out whatever "feels right" will only get you so far in the end and how is it one improves when one barley knows what the heck it is they're doing right, much less how they managed it. First time I wrote fiction in my adult life, I had trouble getting someone around a table. I complained to people, who didn't understand why I couldn't just write "He walked around the table," and I couldn't understand why I kept telling them no. (I don't know about you, but sometimes it seems like my instinct is much more fond of telling me what is wrong rather than what is right. T_T)

...and then I remember that all I'm doing is writing gay fanfiction porn, and that I can take long as I like grumbling over my gay fanfiction porn and inexpertly correcting my gay fanfiction porn because it's just gay fanfiction porn, and then all is right and calm with the world. *deep breath*

...Long comment is long. *wishes instinct would extend to telling her when she's used an inordinate amount of words to say something very simple*

Hahaha, I must say, I love your outlook on life.

I have not tried the "why does this suck" exercise with prose, but after reading a dissatisfying book or watching a dissatisfying movie, I do often try to pinpoint why it didn't work for me. I watched Inception the other day (which DID work for me) but noticed when I went looking for fic that nobody really seemed interested in writing about Cobb. Which was kind of curious, I thought, because he was the main character and his story was very interesting. Then it hit me, His story is interesting, but his character is not. Interesting distinction.

You're definitely right about gray areas. Internal monologues are rife (and rightly so) with otherwise redundant observations like, "Whoa, he's pissed." I'm struggling with something similar, a line in the POV character's thought process I want to keep ("That had gotten his attention.") even though the description makes it clear that attention has been got.

::grim high-fives to writing instinctively::

I get frustrated because everyone will tell you that you can't just sit around waiting for magical mystical "inspiration" to strike, you have to force yourself to write even when you're not feeling it. And... that just doesn't work for me. Literally, every word I write is crap. Anything I force myself to write is terrible and will need to be completely jettisoned and rewritten later. (Also, "He came around the table" is the smoother replacement that popped into my head.)

My advice to improvement is not write more, but read more. Read lots of stuff that doesn't suck and you'll start recycling it back in your own writing. :D

And it's not "just gay fanfiction porn." That's a perfectly legitimate genre. You're allowed to care about doing a good job with that, even if the rest of the world doesn't get why anyone would bother with quality control on "just gay fanfiction porn."

I'm not sure what life outlook I have revealed with my incessant babbling, but I shall take that as a compliment. ^^

Haha, though I haven't been getting into Inception fandom (which I found cool overall but was a little saddened by how much even cooler I thought it COULD be if it didn't feel the need to explain itself so much), I was indeed bemused seeing those that were into it on my flist talking only about pairings with characters I...only vaguely recalled.

Yes. And worst of all, (at least for me?) after I write the uninspired crap, I can't get it out of my head. So even if I throw it all out, my brain is convinced the scene is already written and it doesn't need to replay the scene for me anymore. It will allow me to edit the crap to try to improve it (which seems like what a lot of people will tell you to do), but I know from experience that stuff I've written that was originally crap and then "fixed up" just NEVER gets to the level of things I wrote when it was coming more fluidly. ("Fluidly" being a relative term. Even in my better times, I rarely feel "inspired," hehe. More just like with effort, the right way to say something will reveal itself, versus endless amounts of effort revealing nothing but crap.)

But I do think constantly waiting for inspiration is bad for some people... Like if someone's planning to make writing the way they earn their livelihood, it seems basically impossible unless they're capable of writing through inspiration dry spells. If they truly CAN'T do it, then maybe they just need to readjust their idea of what kind of writer they're going to be. ...On the other hand, there are probably a lot of people out there that say they can't when really they haven't tried hard enough. (...How obvious is it I'm venting at you about someone I know!?!?!? ^____^)

As for me, I adjusted the idea of what kind of writer I am to "no aspirations whatsoever" long ago (this isn't actually a lower of expectations but a raise from "Why do you people keep asking to see my "other writing"?! What in God's name gave you the impression I did that sort of thing?! I'm not some impractical, head-in-the-clouds, has-no-idea-how-crappy-they-really-are dreamer, you hear me?!), and am free to only force myself to write through lack of inspiration only when I'm feeling particularly masochistic.

Haha, I ended up getting a better line for the table traversing in the end. Looking back, probably (*doesn't ACTUALLY want to go look at that fic again* kehehe) it maybe had something to do with timing. A guy had his hand down his pants (...must these things always sound stupid when taken out of context? ^^) and the other was walking around the table to make him pull his arm out. It was supposed to be a funny scene, and to be funniest probably it had to happen fast, and saying lines like "he walked around the table" or even worse "he walked around the table quickly" slows the reading of the scene/action down. Even if you TELL the reader it's happening fast, the rhythm of the prose can screw with the way they perceive it.

Heh, I try to read more. But...I'm such a slow reader, hahaha. ( don't think it's because I play stupid writing games in my head while reading, do you? Surely, that would never slow one down...)

Amen to gay fanfiction porn that. The rest of the world should be a lot more concerned with the quality of gay fanfiction porn, if you ask me. That stuff can get pretty scary in the wrong hands. Don't they know their girlchildren are reading these things? Anyway, I always reserve the right to put unnecessarily large amounts of effort into anything I do, exhausting myself and irritating my friends. Also, it seems like the better I write these things the more people enjoy them. True story. Gives you warm fuzzy feelings.

I bet he dove across the table to extract his friend's arm from his trousers!

My pet peeve about certain types of fiction being taken less seriously probably stems from the way many mainstream readers and critics will write off sci-fi and fantasy as being somehow less legitimate than SERIUS LITERATURE. Raises my blood pressure so much.

If something is GOOD -- good plot, good characters, emotional-impact-that-socks-you-in-the-stomach good -- then it doesn't matter if it's gay or straight, fanfic or original fic, or makes use of explicit sex and violence. A book doesn't (or it shouldn't) automatically become less worthy of respect because the characters are space pirates instead of abused southern housewives.


Haha, those situations always remind me of a bit of an essay I read by a writer once. She talked about how people write off science fiction as "escapist," but when probed further will often admit they don't like reading it because it's "too depressing." ^_^;

The idea that the manner of world in which a story is set is the #1 most influential thing dictating how respectable it is has always been so bizarre and difficult to comprehend for me that when I run into people who think that way I just tend to find them bemusing. Where do they even want to draw the line? Talking pigs and bunnies are ok, obviously. And magical realism, but try to act like nothing magical is happening when magic is happening, cause if you act like the magic is interesting and noteworthy, you're clearly writing that fantasy crap. Only in a make-believe world would people find magic interesting. In the real, respectable world, we try as hard as possible to be as completely miserable (that always makes the best SERIUS LITERATURE) and noticing the magic going on around us would make that too difficult.

Sometimes people want to argue about it and...I'm just not sure how to argue against an argument that makes so little sense. XD

Hah, yeah what's with that, anyhow? I hadn't thought about magical realism before, though that seems to be the loophole if you want to write about magic in SERIUS LITERATURE.

Very interesting point about people not liking sci-fi because it's too depressing. It often is. However, the reason I often don't like sci-fi (especially older sci-fi) is because the authors are so obviously infatuated with the cleverness of their world that they neglect to make the people in it real or interesting. ...Which is an issue that has been discussed at length by many people before me.

I like the "hard" vs "soft" sci-fi distinctions, summed up by as follows:

A character is shown a time machine and asks, "How does it work?" The answer is:

-- In soft SF: "You sit in this seat, set the date you want, and pull that lever."

-- In hard SF: "A good question with an interesting answer. Please have a seat while I bring you up to speed on the latest ideas in quantum theory, after which I will spend a chapter detailing an elaborate, yet plausible-sounding connection between quantum states, the unified field theory, and the means by which the brain stores memory, all tied into theories from both Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking."

For people who don't happen to be physics geeks (and that is a large percent of the population) option 2 is generally going to be both impenetrable and mind-numbing.

I admit I haven't even touched that kind of sci-fi, but this is because I know of it and try to avoid it at all costs. Though I get that way with any genre, really. If someone's so obsessed with the cleverness of their world, or to the details of their historical research or their political message or their totally witty and original sense of humor or their fascinating and twisty mystery plot or their stunningly authentic seeming world mythology or their commentary on the state of human existence that they don't pay proper attention to their attention can scarcely be held. ^_^; I wish "books with interesting, well developed characters" was a genre you could look up in the store. As is you can find books that are spoken well of in genres you think sound interesting...and then find they aren't bad but only that noteworthy to people who prioritize different things than you in a story. *sniff*

(Hahaha. And thank you for the fun link. I'm going to try not to click away from it to fifty bajillion other pages on the site. **)

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