Body Language

As writers, one of the most important jobs we have is to breathe life into characters and describe them to our readers. We need to do this effectively enough so that the picture that forms in our readers’ minds is close to what we envision. And we need to do it in such a way so that we don’t inundate readers with lengthy infodumps.

Body language is an excellent method for inserting character description without it coming off as “infodump-ish”. By slipping in gestures, facial expressions or movements within dialogue, an author can provide a pretty detailed physical description to a reader in a way that seems perfectly natural.

Another great use for body language is to create a more robust communication between characters. If we look at normal interactions between people in the real world, we see that messages are interpreted through more than just words. Vocal cues and body language are even more important than the language itself in successful communication. Mirroring this in storytelling can make character exchanges more realistic and compelling.

Let’s look at some interesting numbers regarding communication: only 7% of successful communication is through words alone. Another 38% is achieved through tonal inflection, modulation and other vocal cues. That means a whopping 55% of communication is done via body language, facial expressions, hand gestures and other visual cues. Studies have shown that when what is being said is in conflict with facial expressions or body language, the majority of listeners will choose the non-verbal communication over the verbal. (Source: Albert Mehrabian,1981)

If you think about it, this isn’t surprising – our eyes are our strongest sense and much of what we know about our world is learned through visual perception. As authors, we often rely heavily on “showing” a reader through visual description of our characters and locations. What I find surprising, however, is how infrequently body language is effectively utilized in character dialogue. It’s almost as if description is forgotten the moment a character opens their mouth to speak.

Let’s look at this in practice. I’ve written two passages below, purposely omitting vocal inflection and concentrating purely on words and body language to create an exchange.

She had long brown hair. Her eyes were green and she wore glasses. Her lips were thin. “Hmmmm, I’m not sure what you mean,” she answered. I knew she was lying through her teeth.

In the above example, the reader is told what the woman looks like through a couple of descriptive sentences (ala “infodump”), followed by a dialogue exchange and a conclusion made by the narrator. Yet there is nothing in the interaction that would alert the reader that the woman is lying beyond the narrator’s claim. The reader is distanced away from what is happening and must rely solely on the narrator’s opinion.

She twisted her dark hair into a bun as she answered the question. “Hmmm, I’m not sure what you mean.” Green eyes peeked over the rims of her glasses for a brief moment as she tipped her head to pin her hair with a pencil. I wasn’t sure if it was the way her eyes avoided my gaze or the hint of a smirk on her thin lips, but I knew for certain that she was lying through her teeth.

In the second example, the infodump sentences have been replaced with description strategically placed in such a way to convey visual cues to both the narrator and the reader. Not only does the passage create a more realistic exchange between the narrator and this character, it provides a physical description to readers without breaking the action in the story. Body language allows readers to observe and make their own conclusions in a way that mimics reality. They can “see” the visual cues and come to their own conclusion about the character’s truthfulness (which may or may not be intended by the author to align with the narrator’s choice).

A character’s posture, gestures, nervous habits and facial expressions provide a lot of insight into their personality. How he or she behaves non-verbally around another character speaks volumes about their relationship – not only with that person, but also with him or herself. As an author, body language is an important tool to create rich, deep characters that can communicate not only with each other, but also communicate with the reader. This allows the reader to develop a relationship with the characters, resulting in a more emotionally-invested reader.

 

 

 

 

 

Overcoming Writers Block

We’ve all experienced that panicky moment when we stare at a blank page and freeze, our normally overly imaginative brains suddenly going silent. Or worse – we open up an existing story only to find prose flowing more like cold molasses on a winter day than the usual gush of words flying so quickly that fingers can’t keep up. Your muse has deserted you to go on an extended vacation, leaving you without an ounce of creativity.

So what can you do to overcome this paralyzing sensation? Here are a few tips to get the creative juices flowing again:

Change your environment – If you normally write from your computer in your office, try getting away to a coffee house or bar. If you are used to writing indoors, try your hand at writing in a park. Trade a noisy environment for a quiet one – or vice versus.

Create a schedule for yourself – Sometimes the best way to get the juices going is to make writing a habit. Set a regular time to focus on writing – and stick to it. Experts say it takes 21 days to form a habit. Make yours writing.

Make use of writing prompts – There are tons of resources to find short prompts to inspire the muse within you. These can be great tools to get your creative juices kick-started again. I’ve taken what came out of past writing prompts and incorporated it into current works in progress.

Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket – If you find yourself out of steam and unable to work on your next Great American Novel, switch it up and work on something else. Write a personal essay, blog post or short story. I normally keep a couple of manuscripts or strong story ideas tucked away to use during dry spells.

Take a walk – It’s long been said that exercise can break through writers’ blocks, and recent research now backs this up. Scientists have found that people who exercise regularly actually do think more creatively. Adding a regular exercise regime to your day can do wonders for your writing – including strengthening that imagination.

Join a critique group – Critique groups, like the ones put on by 9 Bridges, are a great opportunity to get around writers. Often, simply by being around writers and listening to other work being read, you can get the creative juices going again. Check your local groups – 9 Bridges welcomes all writers, whether they are in a place to read material or not.

Read a book – I know it may seem a little counterproductive to spend time reading when you should be writing, but the best writers are also avid readers. Ask any prolific author and they will tell you that they devour books.

And above all, the number one thing you must do is…

Keep writing – Don’t worry if it’s good or bad, happy or sad, or even within your chosen genre. Sometimes the muse has a will of her own and will take you down trails you never considered. Just let the words flow and take you where they will.

Why is Reading Out Loud Important?

by Elizabyth Harrington

One of the things we do at 9 Bridges is to offer critique groups. Our most popular format for this is our verbal critique groups where people bring material to read out loud. About once a month someone has a question about the format of the group. Usually it’s a request to share files prior to the meeting or to bring printed material to pass out. The logic from the author’s viewpoint is that the person hearing the material will miss things if they aren’t following along with something on paper.

But the benefits to a verbal group outweigh the disadvantages.

Listening is an incredibly important skill that we as humans in industrialized nations are losing. I’m not talking about losing our hearing, although we are bombarded daily with more noise than our ancestors(grin). I’m talking about really paying attention to what someone is saying. With emails and social networks replacing phones and in-person friendships, we are slowly losing that social interaction that requires talking to and listening to one another. That is one of the reasons why the verbal format of these critique groups is so important. In addition to everything else they get out of the group, members are forced by the very format to practice their listening skills.

The art of storytelling started as an oral tradition, and in many ways, it still is. A good piece of writing has a natural flow to it, a little like a stream that carries the reader to sea. This is something that is easily picked up through listening, but can be lost while staring at something on paper. Things like pacing, voice, repetition and dialogue stand out when a piece is read out loud. Many writers habitually read their pieces out loud to themselves while editing – we’ve just taken this to a group dynamic.

Not only do our critique groups encourage the development of good listening skills, but they provide a safe place for writers to practice reading in public. With the resurgence of independent book stores and the importance of self-promotion among authors, it’s vital, more than ever before, to develop this ability.

Finally, while the verbal format allows writers to share and receive feedback on their own material, there’s another important benefit: participants get to hear the feedback on other writers’ work as well. I’ve improved my own writing tenfold simply from listening to the feedback given to my critique group peers.

Whether you prefer a written or verbal style, critique groups are an important resource for writers. If you haven’t experienced this for yourself, we invite you to check out one of our groups at a 9 Bridges Chapter near you.

Beyond a Critique Group…

by Elizabyth Harrington

Recently I was asked by a new member of our Portland chapter to explain how a critique group can have so many members and still be of value to writers. The asker’s opinion was that a group of this size was too large to be an effective critique platform.

I replied that unlike most writers groups that consist of a critique group and nothing else, 9 Bridges gives writers a platform to connect and share. In addition to the standard critique groups (Portland has four separate groups meeting weekly), our community offers write-ins, workshops, social events, and promotes other events that members might find interesting (like writers conferences, book signings, workshops and presentations). We are also building a repository of information and resources that will soon be available on our website. Finally, writers develop contacts and relationships through our organization, some of which turn into long and lasting friendships.

I could almost hear the “aha moment” happen over the phone. Then came the excited reply: “You mean it’s an entire community of writers!”

EXACTLY.

While 9 Bridges may have had humble beginnings as a chapter of the Coffee House Writers Group, it quickly evolved to something much more dynamic and exciting: a community of like-minded people with members throughout the country.

Our workshop series came out of discussions on craft and the business of writing during critique meetings. In response to requests for some kind of community interaction between meetings, we created a Facebook community so writers from different critique groups could connect. And, as people moved around, we started new chapters and extended our community reach across state lines.

As our membership base grew, we attracted the attention of other organizations, many of which extended invitations to their events or offered special discounts to our members.Suddenly we realized we were no longer simply a single critique group; we had evolved into a community that shared information, events and experiences with one another. Our tiny family had become a large village.

The best thing about a community is that it is always evolving and changing. Every new chapter – every new member – has something new to teach us. Over the years I’ve been involved with this community, I’ve been fortunate enough to watch it expand and evolve. I am looking forward to many more years watching our humble group become a movement.

Keep Writing!

Elizabyth Harrington
Executive Director