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How Not to Write About Body Language

How Not to Write About Body Language

How Not to Write About Body Language

Body language is a great way to add depth to your characters' emotions. It humanizes your characters in a way their dialogue cannot. But, just with dialogue, adding body language requires a little finesse. Because of that, adding body language to your story comes with its own set of problems.

Yet, no one tells you what not to do when writing body language. And for this reason, this "ultimate writing tool" is quite easy to screw up. So, here are some ways not to write body language.

1. Be Too Specific

Going into too much detail when describing body language is distracting. It puts your reader's focus on the body language, instead of the action in the scene. Thus, you bog down the scene with exposition instead of enhance it with emotion.

For example, look at this sentence:

  • "Charles used his left index finger to scratch his widow's peak, and drifts of dandruff fall onto his nose."

Unless knowing that Charles' using only his left index finger to scratch only his widow's peak is important, you shouldn't go into that much detail. Also, you shouldn't mention the character's dandruff. It's not poetic: it's crude.

Instead, the following sentence is just fine:

  • "Charles scratched his head."

This sentence is shorter, more concise, and means the exact same thing. For those that tend to be more expressive, this may be disappointing to know. But, those people do not understand why writers use body language.

Body language is used to convey an emotion without "telling" the emotion. So, if we want to say a person is angry without directly saying it, we use body language. In this particular case, we may say, "he clenched his fists", because that's what angry people do. How he does this is less important than the fact that he's doing it. Thus, the smaller details don't matter unless they emphasize the emotion.

In this way, saying "his knuckles turned white as he clenched his fist" is better than saying "he pressed his fingers into his palm, forming a fist". One helps show how angry he is. The other is just confusing.

2. Repeat Character Habits Too Often

All humans have certain habits, good or bad, when they react to situations. It's a part of human nature. Giving your characters mannerisms can make them more realistic. But, if you exaggerate their habits, your characters will feel like caricatures. Unfortunately, the line between the two is quite thin.​

This means:

  • Only let your characters say a "catch-phrase" once or twice during a conversation
  • Sprinkle certain character-specific habits throughout the scene, not clustered one page.
  • Use certain habits (such as smiling and nodding) sparingly. These habits are common, so it's easy to repeat them multiple times. But, the repetition messes with the flow of a story.

The same idea also applies to the personality traits of a character. You can have a character that is clumsy but doesn't fall over in every scene. If you do this, your character seems laughable and annoying. You must trust your readers to recognize certain character traits in your reader. Repeating a trait too often will only frustrate them.

3. Repeat Body Language Too Often

This tip deals with using body language and dialogue in unison. But, this also applies to other types of scenes as well. Breaking up dialogue with body language is a good way to add interest in a scene. But, you shouldn't mention body language every time a character speaks. In fact, body language stifles the flow of dialogue in more intense scenes. So, you need to carefully balance body language and dialogue in each scene.

In other words, you should write just enough for your audience to understand what's happening. If body language either helps explain what is happening, write it out. If it hinders the flow of your scene, do not. This especially applies if you are repeating actions. But, if you are adding body language because your readers don't understand what's going on, you need to work on writing body language.

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4. Use Unknown Body Language

Nearly everyone understands a few basic body language cues. For example, sad people cry. Happy people laugh. Angry people scream. Most people understand even more body cues. Submissive people try to look smaller and are more passive. Dominant people look larger and are more assertive.

But, a small number of people understand some lesser-known body cues. For example, a person who is in love will tend to blush around their significant other. They way become more touchy and widen their eyes. But did you know dilated eyes also signify attraction?

Most people don't. And, if you were to write "his eyes dilated" in the in a romance novel, you'd shock your reader out of suspension of belief. So, when looking for what to write about, remember this. if you didn't know it was a body language tick, don't write about it. No one will understand what you're talking about. Don't be technical!

5. Tell the Body Language and Not Show It

Just because you are using dialogue doesn't mean you are immune from "telling". In some ways it's easier to tell when using dialogue than not. It's because there is a fine line between showing and telling when it comes to body cues.

For example, this sentence is telling.

  • "Angry, he hit the wall and screamed."

Now, this sentence is showing.

  • "A hideous scream erupted from his throat as he jammed his fist into the kitchen wall."

Which sentence has more impact? Which sentence conveys the most emotion? Which sentence makes you curious about why he's punching a wall? It's the second sentence, of course. The first sentence tells you the man is angry. The action words try to prove it, but the words are weak. So, even with words like "hit" and "scream", the sentence falls flat.

The second sentence shows you just how angry he is. You don't need to be told he's angry because of how descriptive the sentence is. The "hideous scream" that erupts from his throat shows you the anger is sudden. Jamming his fist into the wall characterizes him as a person who resorts to violence. Because his fist goes into the wall, he must be a strong man. Even saying he hit the kitchen wall reinforces the setting.

You must ensure you show your body language instead of tell your body language. Once you do, you have the opportunity to create the best impact for your story. This only comes if you show these things to your reader.

6. Have Poor Word Choice

Word choice and syntax are essential to producing the right emotional effect you want. Because, depending on which words you use, the sentence can change dramatically.

For example, see the next three sentences.

  • "The mother walked across the street with her child."
  • "The mother glanced down both ends of the street, clutched her child's wrist, and scurried across the street."
  • "The mother's eyes darted across the entire block. Then, she snatched the child's wrist and dashed across the street."

The first sentence is plain. The mother and child are probably background characters in a given scene. The second sentence suggests that the mother is nervous. The words used also offer an air of mystery. Perhaps she's trying to avoid seeing someone in public? Or, maybe she's taking her child to school for the first time? Who knows? The third sentence suggests the woman is stealing a child!

All three sentences say the same thing: a woman is taking a child across the street. But, the meaning of the sentence changes depending on the words used! This means you must understand the connotations of the words you use. If not, you will give your audience the wrong impression about your story.

If you do any of the following, really stop and assess your writing. Is what you are doing enhancing your writing, or stifling the flow of the narrative? To check, read the same scene with and without the offending pieces of writing. Does it flow better? Knowing that, you can make the best judgment on your writing. Do you struggle with anything else when writing body language? Leave a comment below?


Robin T. Vale on May 07, 2017:

I loved this part:

Unless knowing that Charles' using only his left index finger to scratch only his widow's peak is important, you shouldn't go into that much detail. Also, you shouldn't mention the character's dandruff. It's not poetic: it's crude.

Instead, the following sentence is just fine:

"Charles scratched his head."

This sentence is shorter, more concise.

Along with about being careful with word choice. I'll be sharing this with my followers on Wattpad. Thank you!

I can use sone help, I want to show amused annoyance in a different way then having the corner of a lip twitching, and I want it elsewhere on the body. Maybe the hands? So much work for a three word sentence! I've been searching for help on this for an hour now.

Britt Bogan on September 18, 2016:

Hey, Nicole! This is a wonderful, concise, direct, and helpful article. I'm a judge for a creative writing competition, and you've perfectly summed up some of the advice I've struggled to communicate to the participants. Thanks for adding this point of reference. :D

John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on December 19, 2015:

Very good tips and advice on the use of body language in writing. Well deserving of Hub of the Day.

Kylyssa Shay from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA on December 18, 2015:

Congratulations on Hub of the Day! What genres do you write and where can we buy your novels?

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on December 18, 2015:

Nicole, congrats on HOTD, since I've commented on this already! Great hub!

RTalloni on December 18, 2015:

An interesting read on more than one level. Congrats on your Hub of the Day award for this useful post.

Nadine May from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa on August 26, 2015:

Wow I can learn a lot from reading your hubs. I must have made so many mistakes in my first novel after reading this. Voted and shared on my Facebook writers page. Thanks.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on August 08, 2015:

Great hub for us fellow writers to improve our writing! Voted up for useful!

CK Brooke from Washington, MI on July 30, 2015:

Love this hub! I learned a thing or two. Thank you!

Canita Prough from Texas on July 21, 2015:


Nicole Grizzle (author) from Georgia on July 16, 2015:

@B. Leekley I have the exact opposite problem. My writing tends to be too sparse, which tends works well in areas such as this. But, when it comes to writing things like setting, I struggle. I manage somehow, of course.

@FatBoyThin I quite like this quote from John Updike in reference to revisions: “Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.” It's not always easy (it took Hemingway 39 times to revise 'Farewell to Arms' to his liking), but it is definitely satisfying.

@DzyMsLizzy A reader should never notice a writer's diction and syntax. They should be absorbed into the story, not noticing how odd the writing on the page is. That being said, thanks for catching the mistake in my example!

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on July 15, 2015:

Interesting. I've read quite a few books and stories in which the authors either did or did not have a good grasp on the use of body language. As you say, the ones who fail in this cause the reader to "fall out of the story," wondering 'what just happened, there?'

Hmm...actually, the second "mother" in the example seems to be clutching the child's wrist with her eyes.... a good trick! ;-)

Voted up, interesting and useful.

Colin Garrow from Inverbervie, Scotland on July 13, 2015:

Interesting examples, Nicole, and (of course) stuff we should all know - it's easy to improve a sentence if you do that old, traditional writer's trick of re-writing. Works every time. Great Hub.

Brian Leekley from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on July 13, 2015:

Thanks, Nicole, for this helpful tutorial on how not to write body language in fiction. My biggest fiction writing flaw is including too much detail. That is in general, not just regarding body language. Even when I try to minimize detail, beta readers fault me for hobbling a story with too much detail. Your examples give me a feel of what to aim for and what to avoid when writing body language, and some of your cautions apply more generally, too.

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