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.

 

 

 

 

 

9 Questions with… Kellie Doherty

FINDING HEKATE COVER WEB VIEW 72dpiKellie Doherty is a PSU graduate student studying book publishing, aiming to complete her masters this spring. She also has a freelance editing company called Edit Revise Perfect and takes jobs whenever they come her way. When not doing homework, work-work, and trying not to stress out about all the graduation prep, Kellie likes to write and go for walks. Her debut science fiction novel Finding Hekate was published by Desert Palm Press on April 8, 2016. Find more information on her website: http://kelliedoherty.com/.

 

9 Bridges: When you are writing do you feel more like you are being inspired by a muse, or driven by demons?

Kellie Doherty: It really depends on which character I’m writing at the moment. If I’m working on a particularly mischievous villain I feel like it could be demons lashing out to get it out of my system. I can go to a pretty dark place to get the characters right. But with the other characters, it tends to be easier, lighter, eased out by muses even. I used to joke around about how all my muse needed was a good sprig of rosemary to get her going. (It usually doesn’t take much to make me write.)

9B: If you were alone on a desert isle with no tinder for a fire handy what book would you most want to have with you and why would you chose that book to burn?

KD: I would burn Fifty Shades of Grey. Sorry, James, I respect the time and effort it took to transform the once-Twilight fanfiction into a book, but I honestly can’t stand it. The representation of the BDSM community alone is cringe worthy. Plus, with all the sex scenes, don’t you think Fifty Shades would burn just a bit hotter than anything else?

9B:What is the best advice you have ever given or received about writing?

KD: The best advice I’ve both received and given is this: Keep writing. Even if it’s crappy. Even if you don’t like it. Even if you think you’ll never use it in a million years, write it out. Who knows, there might be some gold in all that muck.

9B: What tools do you use when you write?

KD: Can my cats be tools? Seriously, my cats sit on me whenever I write so they might as well be instrumental. I generally write in Word on my computer. I also have a separate doc open for consistency checks (with character traits, world building stuff, odd names, etc.). I keep a pen and notebook handy wherever I go in case the inspiration strikes—because really, do we ever honestly stop writing?—and I keep some paper by my bedside, too. (Just last night I had a dream about a father/daughter/old lady team in a post apocalyptic world that I might turn into a short story!) I have The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi close by in case I get stuck on how to portray certain emotions via actions. (It’s an awesome resource. I highly recommend it.) I also listen to Disney or classical music, depending on what I’m actually writing. I also like to have water or tea nearby.

9B: What is your favorite part of the writing process?

KD: Character creation! I love creating characters. It was my favorite part when I was a kid, and it’s still my favorite now. Generating a whole backstory for them, weaving them into a current plotline, inventing a special tick or trait (like the scar from Finding Hekate) that defines them in some way is the best part for me.

9B: Everyone always talks about writers block but no one ever seems to do anything about it. What is your solution?

KD: My solution to writers block is threefold: 1) have a cup of black tea with milk and honey, 2) take a walk, and 3) write at least 500 words per day until that block breaks.

9B: Most writers I have talked to have at least one story about a loony teacher they knew who somehow inspired them. What is yours?

KD: Hmm, I’d have to tell a story about Prof. Clay Nunnally. He taught a bunch of my college-level classes at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He wasn’t loony by any means, but he would recite poetry from memory, my favorite being My Last Duchess by Browning. He would do voices and act it out even. The class would fall silent listening to him. His recitations made me appreciate the power and charm of words and inspired me to write better because of it.

9B: How has 9 Bridges supported you in your writing journey?

KD: Out of all the wonderful opportunities the 9 Bridges offers, I’d say their write-ins have supported me the most. Writing is usually seen as a solitary act—and for me it is, more often than not—but their format of writing for a certain amount of time and then chatting about it is quite helpful. It gets me out of that solitary moment for a little while.

9B: Rock, Paper or Scissors?

KD: Paper, definitely.

9 Questions With… Elisabeth Flaum

9 Bridges is proud to introduce “9 Questions with…” 
A biweekly blog where we ask writers to answer 9 burning questions people do not even realize they want to know, including the most important question of all; Rock, paper or scissors?  

Elisabeth Flaum began writing because of Doctor Who and hasn’t yet been able to stop. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she works in accounting, races dragonboats, and writes short sci fi and poems about volcanoes. Recent publications include The Comet’s Tail: Bits and Pieces available at lulu.com and Ghosts available on Smashwords.

 

9 Bridges: When you are writing do you feel more like you are being inspired by a muse, or driven by demons?

Elisabeth: Definitely driven. I have a lot of ‘what am I doing and why am I doing it?’ moments.

 

9: Tell us about the space where you write best and why that space works for you.

EF: I have written great stuff on my work computer after hours; on my home desktop in the middle of the night; on my laptop in the back yard; in my notebook on the bus; occasionally on loose paper on a bench outside the Convention Center. I have also written crap in most of those places. The important thing is having something to write with.

 

9: If you were alone on a desert isle with no tinder for a fire handy what book would you most want to have with you and why would you chose that book to burn?

EF: I would happily burn Mists of Avalon if it meant I could get all those hours of my life back.

 

9: If you were alone on a desert isle with plenty of tinder for a fire handy what book would you want most to have with you and why?

EF: Dune. I could read it over and over, and it makes sand appealing.

 

9: What is the best advice you have ever given or received about writing?

EF: Neil Gaiman said, “Write.” That pretty much covers it.

 

9: Have you ever entered a writing contest? Did you win?

EF: I once wrote a poem about Portland food carts that won tickets to the Northwest Food and Wine Festival worth $180. At the time I didn’t consider myself a writer and entered mostly as a joke. The response – not just the win, but what I heard from people – convinced me to take my writing a little bit more seriously.

 

9: Everyone always talks about writers block but no one ever seems to do anything about it. What is your solution.

EF: Just write. Write garbage, write fluff, write a list, write anything, just write. The longer I go without writing, the harder it is to start again, and the crappier my writing when I do start. It’s like sports that way; take two weeks off at the gym, regret it for months.

 

9: Most writers I have talked to have at least one story about a loony teacher they knew who somehow inspired them. What is yours?

EF: I had a music theory teacher in college who regularly distributed handouts with titles like “A plethora of major seventh chords.” He wore such a smile on his face as he did it. I think of him whenever I come across a really great word.

 

9: Rock, Paper or Scissors?

EF: Paper. Lots and lots of paper.