We've spent the past several months exploring the ways novice writers mark themselves as amateurs. We've talked about how to develop the world beyond your story, build animals into your world, develop your side characters' motivations, and catch filter words in your writing.
The widespread belief that 93% of communication is nonverbal is false, but body language is still essential in—and even outside of—every conversation. As we discussed in last month's article about the full use of all five senses, you can tell a lot about someone from their posture and demeanor. In fact, those are often the first things you notice.
But when we first start out, we often introduce and expand characters by reciting facts. When we get to the conversation, we focus entirely on the dialogue and develop something aptly described as "talking heads syndrome."
Today we'll discuss how to weave body language into your overall story and use it to improve dialogue scenes.
General body language
Every movement you make is body language. The way you walk, the way your hands move when you speak, and even the way you stand give people an immediate impression of you.
Changing a person's general body language over time is also a great way to show their character arc. This technique is used very effectively in Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy. Vin, the main character, starts as a street urchin who spends her life trying to go unnoticed, always making herself small and positioning herself so she can see everything without being seen. Vin does this deliberately, and the other viewpoint characters who see her always notice her doing so.
Throughout the books, Vin grows more confident, gradually abandoning her old habits. By the end, she is only described as hiding or making herself small as a strategic advantage. Her body language has changed to reflect her growth as a person.
By paying careful attention to body language in your own work, you can show characters' personalities and their character arcs.
Body language in dialogue
Body language is important to your story as a whole, but it is absolutely essential to conversation. It adds an extra layer to the discussion, giving your readers an impression of thoughts and emotions behind the words.
You can also use body language to manipulate a situation during negotiations. Again, this is done well in the Mistborn series. Vin intentionally appears small and paranoid on multiple occasions throughout the second and third books to manipule her opponents into seeing her as weak.
Last but certainly not least, showing people's movements and expressions is a great way to break up dialogue. Doing so makes scenes flow more naturally and reduces reliance on dialogue tags such as "said."
Pro Tip: Some writers prefer to write their dialogue first without interruption, then add body language in later. Doing so can help you maintain a more natural flow in the conversation.
Remember that body language is about more than simple expressions or grand movements. It's in everything we do—even sitting or standing still. Your characters' body language should be just as integral to their interactions.
Little Things Writers Miss is a series exploring common elements of world-building, character development, and story elements that novice writers often neglect. Every month on the 15th and 30th (or the closest weekdays), we will explore two of the little things writers miss, helping writers identify and eliminate issues in their own work.
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Dianna Gunn is the author of YA fantasy novella “Keeper of the Dawn” and the Write Plan content writer. She also blogs about creativity, life and books at The Dabbler.
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