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."