This week, we’re going to talk about one of my favorite topics in both writing and every day life. Body language and microexpressions. You’re probably thinking, Ariel, what does that have to do with writing? Isn’t that just something for the FBI or movies with super-human characters that act as human lie detectors? My answer: Not at all. And I’m going to show you why.
Why Include Body Language and Microexpressions in Writing?
We’re surrounded by body language and microexpressions every day. Even if we aren’t aware of it, we use these clues in non-verbal behavior to figure out more about those around us. Whether we’re trying to decide if we can trust the new guy or just trying to figure out why a friend seems nervous and down, we use it more than we realize. Some use it more naturally than others.
So, why wouldn’t we include them in writing? Non-verbal body language is such a huge part of our daily lives that it would make sense to include it in fiction. But often, writers without much experience or writers who just struggle with emotionally descriptive writing lack in this area. Adding in the subliminal messaging that body language can provide helps to bring writing to life for the reader. It makes the character feel more like a real person, which is extremely important.
How to Include Body Language in Writing
Of course, as useful as body language is, you also don’t want to overdo. You can end up including more than you should, which leads to writing like this:
Erica tossed her hair over her shoulder and crossed her arms. She rolled her eyes and tapped her foot. “I cannot believe you thought I’d cooperate.”
Daniel glared at her and crossed his arms too. He took a step forward and leaned closer to her. Step by step, he pressed her back against the wall. He locked her in between his body and the wall. His lip curled. “I don’t care if you want to cooperate or not. You’re going to.”
She snarled and pushed at his chest. Her fingers curled into fists against his chest when he didn’t release her or move back. Her jaw clenched. A vein in her temple throbbed.
Okay, hopefully you can see this is certifiably awful. There’s too much here. If you saw this in a published book, you would feel the author had overwritten, right? It isn’t something you’d want to read at all. So, if you don’t want to do this, how can you use body language sensibly?
It’s about giving the reader an image, so sometimes, less is more. Often, if you drop just subtle hints here and there, it will be more effective than using all of the different body language imagery you can come up with. So, here’s a way to rewrite the previous piece to make it cleaner and no longer overwritten.
Erica rolled her eyes and crossed her arms. “You really think I would cooperate with you?”
Daniel took a step forward, his lip curling up. She took a step back, heart pounding. He took another step and then another until she was pressed against the wall, her fingers trembling against the brick behind her. His warm body locked her between him and the wall. She shoved him, but he didn’t budge, and her fingers curled into fists against his chest.
This second example is shorter, but it also uses specific cues to show first defiance, then contempt from the guy, and finally fear and anger from the girl when she can’t get rid of him. But I didn’t need all of the descriptions I had before. So think about the body language you want to draw attention to and make sure that body language will give the reader the clearest image of the emotion you’re trying to paint.
How Can You Learn Non-Verbal Cues to Incorporate Them?
I recommend reading Joe Navarro’s book What Every Body Is Saying and any of Paul Ekman’s work on microexpressions. The first one, in particular, is a good resource for readers who aren’t as into this kind of thing because it’s less about the science behind it and more about teaching normal, every day people how to better understand non-verbal cues. So use his book if you need a clearly explained, non-sciencey explanation of the topic. He’s got some pretty neat stories from his days in the FBI too, and he shares some throughout the book to illustrate his points.
Besides that, there are resources for writers specifically that can help you understand what emotions are associated with which body language displays. You can usually find those for free on the internet. Just know that you should vary up the different displays of body language associated with that emotion because not every person will display the same exact manipulator or pacifying behavior (terms that are explained by Navarro to be comforting behaviors that humans reflexively use when they’re uncomfortable or feel threatened). People may have something specific they do, such as playing with hair or jewelry for women or readjusting a neck tie or playing with a wedding ring for men. Different genders also go about comforting themselves differently when they’re nervous. Women may be more prone to one behavior than men in some situations, while men may be more prone to a different behavior than the women are in another. Knowing the differences can be tremendously helpful!
If you haven’t already, start doing the research on this area so you can better incorporate it into your work. It’s an important area that doesn’t get as much notice as it should. Do you have tips for finding good tips on body language or advice on incorporating it into writing? Feel free to share in the comments below!