This first appeared on 9Bridges.org in April, 2016
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.