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About the Writer:

Victoria Grossack, a former moderator of a critique group with Coffeehouse for Writers, has published articles and short stories for various magazines. She is creating a set of novels placed in Bronze Age Greece with her frequent collaborator, Alice Underwood. Visit Tapestry of Bronze, and read about Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus, just published, as well as their work in progress.

Victoria also teaches a workshop in Writing Historical Fiction for Coffeehouse for Writers. 

Flesh Out Your Writing with Body Language
Victoria Grossack

A goal of the fiction writer is to put the readers in the story. In other words, you strive to make your characters and your settings so real that readers forget their actual surroundings and take up temporary residence in yours. The goal is fine but on the theoretical side; the big challenge how to do this in practice. One method is through the use of body language, that is, words and phrases which relate to different parts of your characters’ bodies.

 Breathe life into your description by using all senses

Authors generally remember to put in what the character can see. For example: The sky was blue, the trees were lush and green; the paint on the house was gray and peeling. But you may need to remind yourself that readers and your characters have at least four more senses which you can address. For example, if your hero is on a wharf, what would your readers experience if they were standing next to him? Here are some possibilities:

  • Sense of sight: the old men drinking in their boats, the sails billowing, the blinding reflection of the sun on the water

  • Sense of hearing: waves lapping against the shore and the pier, gulls crying, sails flapping, the chug of a small boat’s engine

  • Sense of touch: the heat of the sun on your hero’s black pants, the coolness of the wind on her cheek, the roughness of the old planks beneath the feet

  • Sense of smell: the tang of salt; the rotting scent of seaweed, the diesel in the boats

  • Sense of taste: grittiness of sand which gets into the food, the richness of oysters

You can build upon this by having the character interact more with the setting, by bringing feelings and emotions to it. Perhaps a woman in a fancy outfit walks along the pier: she may feel irritation with the wind as it ruins her expensive hairdo, or awkward and embarrassed as she stumbles in her inappropriate high heels. Or a certain smell, such as a whiff of perfume, may remind the hero of girlfriend who left him. By doing this, you make the setting come alive for your character, and thus for your reader.

Use body language for conversational beats

For readers to follow a conversation, writers have to include some form of speaker attribution, such as "John said" and "Mary replied."  This can grow tedious for the author, who may become tired of repeatedly typing S-A-I-D. But without an indication of the speaker the reader gets lost, especially when there are more than two speakers.

Mark said, "I wonder what time it is?"

"It is way past dinnertime," said Susan.

"You’re wrong," said Katie.

"Do you know where Jeff is?" asked Susan.

One possibility is to change the word used to attribute the speech. Alternatives abound: ask, answer, exclaim, yell, whisper, retort, relate, sing, say, declare, aver, pronounce, and so on. Unfortunately, these have to be used sparingly or your readers may begin to pay more attention to these words than to your story.

Mark wondered, "I wonder what time it is?"

"It is way past dinnertime," averred Susan.

"You’re wrong," Katie contradicted.

"Do you know where Jeff is?" asked Susan.

Another alternative – and one which will also get you away from the talking head syndrome, where there is dialogue but little else – is to include movements of the characters.

Mark rubbed his eyes and stretched on the couch. "I wonder what time it is?"

Susan’s stomach growled. "It is way past dinnertime."

Katie looked at her watch. "You’re wrong."

Susan went to the window and opened it. A gust of rain soaked her T-shirt. "Do you know where Jeff is?"

Admittedly, having four of these movements in a row becomes tiring for the reader as well, but this method provides the author with another way of dealing with the dialogue attribution, and also brings more life into the story. The best solution is to combine these different techniques in the way that best enhances your narrative.

Show don’t tell

Most writers are familiar with the directive: "Show, don’t tell!" Body language provides a way to comply with this command. Here are a couple of examples:

Telling: Henry was tired.

Showing: Henry yawned.

Telling: Sheila said angrily, "You’re wrong!"

Showing: Sheila stamped her foot. "You’re wrong!"

These are both simple examples, but they make my point. The second instance is particularly important, because the first part contains the adverb "angrily". The "-ly" adverbs are warning signals that you may have drifted into telling instead of showing. By having Sheila stamp her foot, Sheila shows her emotion and the readers know she is speaking angrily without your having to tell them explicitly.

Stretching your body and mind

We’ve covered some basics. Now it’s time for you to develop your own repertoire of body movements and interactions. So, here is a writing exercise which you can do in the safety of your own home.

Start at the crown of your head and work your way down. For various parts of your body (or the bodies of your characters), come up with movements and twitches and grandiose gestures. Write them down, so that you develop your own set of possibilities. Try to move from the commonplace and the cliché to the creative. And award yourself extra points for gestures which convey emotions or interact with the environment.

Here are some examples of what the different parts of your body can do.

Hair: bounces, waves, falls in the eyes

Eyebrows: lift, lower, squeeze together

Lips: purse, press, blow, whistle, kiss

Feet: shuffle, ache, swell, stink, stamp

Of course, there are many more body parts and many more possibilities. They are only limited by the parts of the human body - or whatever body parts belong to your animals or space aliens - and your imagination.

The Body Language Contest for the most expressive gestures

For each of the following body parts, write a phrase or a sentence in which the body part engages in some gesture or activity. Entries will be judged on:

Originality: Is the expression fresh or is it cliché?

Emotion: How well does the expression convey emotion?

Senses: How well does the expression convey one of the senses?

Here are the body parts for the contest:

  • Fingers

  • Nose

  • Neck

  • Feet

  • Lips

Contest Deadline: March 15, 2005

Send an e-mail with the subject line Body Language Contest Entry

to [email protected].

Each entry must contain all five body parts.  Enter as often as you like, but only one entry per e-mail.  The prize is a free four-week course anytime during 2005 and publication of the winning entry at Coffeehouseforwriters and in Fiction Fix. The judges’ decision is final. If other entries show sufficient merit, names and the entries will be published as honourable mentions. Be sure to include:

Your e-mail address  (Make sure it's correct!!)

Your name as you want it published (if you want it published).

Good luck!

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