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.

The Solitary Writer

by Vargus Pike

Occasionally when I hear someone say that writing is a lonely business, this picture forms in my head of a writer in some distant white field with a flock of words. Shepherding them into patterns while they keep the wolves of self-doubt at bay. Or I imagine the writer stranded in a desert isle with plenty of food and water but without pen or paper as they struggle to commit to memory the story they must tell to native publishers to appease them and survive. A lonely business indeed.

But is it lonely for everyone?

True when I write I spend much of my time sitting by myself in a room, but am I lonely? A continual barrage of characters seems to constantly leak from my psyche like so many ants. They crawl around my head searching for release until they find their way to my fingers and emerge onto the pages. There is the old fishmonger – his third leg his cane. Each step he takes in his shop a labor, a struggle to survive as he puts his fish out in the morning and then throws them away in the evening unsold because no one ever comes into the store. The mother bereft; her children stolen by a reclusive neighbor who plans to sell them to a rich childless woman in a compound in Idaho, until his truck breaks down near a wildlife refuge in Oregon and things go horribly awry. Wrong place, wrong time. The couple in love who travel down the coast collecting memories in a bag on their honeymoon, then on their fiftieth wedding anniversary in the Kansas nursing home, they live they open the bag and are magically transported into their past. Their attendants find them dead in their room the next morning with water in their lungs, sun burnt, hand in hand – their slippers filled with sand. Writing may be solitary but for me lonely never.

The scary thing is I have absolutely no Idea where the ideas come from. Lacking a better explanation the Greeks placed the blame firmly in the hands of the 9 Muses, Daughters of Zeus. Lacking a better explanation I tend to agree with them and why not? Stranger things happen in the minds of writers and leak out onto the page every day. So the next time you feel lonely while writing a horror story alone in a dimly lit rented cabin in the middle of nowhere and you hear a floorboard creek behind you relax. Chances are it is one of the Muses looking over your shoulder helping you flesh out the story.

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.

Writing About Food

How to depict taste, smell and texture on paper.

by Mark V. Harrington

It sounds so simple. You’re writing a restaurant review or have decided to write about your favorite recipe. Yes, you can put down in words the ingredients that go into the recipe. Your can recount the décor of the restaurant. You can give the directions of how to put the ingredients together or even put in words how the service was and what was on the menu. But the big question is how did it make you feel? How did the taking a bite of that sourdough bread, that has a light coating of sweetened honey butter feel in your mouth, how did it taste, what came to mind? When you’re separating eggs through your fingers, how do you depict how it feels to have the whites sliding through your finders until only the yoke is left in your palm?

Getting all of this down on paper can be sometimes challenging and sometimes daunting. We know what we are feeling, smelling, tasting and yet translating that into words is a task that leaves us speechless.

Let’s take, for example, our previous egg. We pick it up out of the bowl and know the delicacy of this item and yet our fingers feel the hardness of the shell. We are tempted to press, but our inner voice knows better. It knows that while the shell is hard, it is thin, delicate; a temporary protective barrier entrusted to keep the liquid white and yolk safe until it is needed. Taking it in hand we strike it against a bowl, but not too hard – just hard enough to put a chink in this egg’s outer armor. Then with deft hands we open the shell with one hand, letting the fluid, viscous contents flow into the palm of our other hand.

With fingers slightly separated, we feel the slippery whites of the egg slide between them, thinking of the rich meringue that it will create, the tasty macaroons or the airy Pavlova, (a meringue-based dessert named after the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova). You’re left with the yellow liquid sphere of the yoke in your hand, itself protected by it’s own protective barrier, though much thinner and definitely more delicate than it’s outer cousin, the shell.

Descriptive words can be a powerful tool in the hands of a skilled writer. They not only communicate information such as color, scent, texture, and taste, but can also transport the reader into the writer’s experience. Painting a picture of sight, sound, scent and texture so that the reader feels what the writer feels, smells what the writer smells, and tastes what the writer tastes.

It enables the difference between:

I cooked the chicken in a frying pan with salt, pepper, cumin, and crushed garlic until it was done.

And:

Cooking the chicken in a frying pan, the scent of cumin and crushed garlic filled the air, taking me back to the open air markets of India. The salt and pepper added its own subtle sensualness to the aromatic bouquet.

See the difference? In other words descriptive words are your friend, don’t be afraid to use them.