Say hello to this week’s guest blogger Nina Beaumont…
I’d like to talk about one of my favorite stylistic devices in my writer toolbox—body language. Using posture, gestures, movements, and facial expressions, you can show your characters’ innermost feelings, set the atmosphere of the scene, and engage with your reader’s senses.
In real life, communication is not always verbal. In fact, I recently read that 90% of our communication is nonverbal. Our body language communicates information to our audience (be it one or a thousand) and affects how our audience perceives us. Since our body language is constantly providing cues about how we feel, I wonder if clever use of body language by a writer engages the reader on an amygdala level. I’ll have to do more research on that.
Being someone who loves doing research, in my early writing days, I took a number of body language classes that were very helpful. I even took a class from a former FBI profiler, who shared some fascinating information about how body language and facial cues can reveal whether or not someone is lying.
All of us have probably been in a situation where we were talking a good game, but our body language communicated something else entirely. It can be very effective, for instance, to have a character be outwardly confident or even defiant and yet, have their body language betray the opposite and have another character notice it and perhaps capitalize on it.
A good way to practice this is to write a piece of dialogue between two characters where there is something important at stake. Write just the dialogue with he said/she said taglines. In your second version, pretend this is a movie, and you are seeing the characters’ gestures, movements, and facial expressions. Do they make eye contact or avoid it? Are they still or do they walk around? How does their body language change as the stakes of the conversation become higher? Use active, descriptive verbs. See if some dialogue can actually be replaced by body language.
Body language can be particularly useful in tag lines to identify who is speaking. While it is true that “he said/she said” practically disappears for the reader, becoming just a bit of information like punctuation, I tend to find it boring and always find myself wanting to replace it with “whispered/murmured/shouted.” This can work, but it often comes with its own awkwardness because it can feel artificial. Skillful use of body language identifies who is speaking and provides additional insight into the character.
I find it helpful to develop detailed character profiles for my protagonists and somewhat less detailed ones for secondary characters, which helps me make their behavior and their body language consistent. How do they act when they are angry? Do they shout, or does their voice go all soft and menacing? Do they stuff their hands in their pockets? Do they crack their knuckles? How about when they are afraid? Is it fight or flight? Do they go on full-blown attack or are they ankle biters?
Using body language to show character, emotion, and—very importantly—reaction to what other characters say is a great way to give additional insight into the character’s state of mind and is one of the best ways to show, not tell.
“Are you lying to me again?” Richard demanded.
“Are you lying to me again?” Richard snatched up a pen from the desk and curled his fingers around it until his knuckles whitened.
Body language can also color your narrative, enabling you to portray a character’s state of mind without ever saying in so many words how that person feels and set the mood of the scene.
Here’s an example:
Jenny hopped down from the stone wall and tapped her slipper against a pile of chestnuts, scattering them. Then she skipped down the path, occasionally stopping to pick some of the tiny English daisies that grew along its edges.
Jenny jumped down from the stone wall and scattered a pile of chestnuts with a fierce kick. Then she dashed down the path, trampling the tiny English daisies that grew along its edges.
How do you decide what is enough body language? Or too much? This question comes up most often in scenes where physical movement is of paramount importance—action scenes (a fight, a pursuit) and love scenes.
Here, it’s helpful to track the progress of the scene by describing movements in a logical order (how does his hand get from here to there) but, of course, in such a way that it is not merely a recital of physical activity. In an action scene or a love scene, your characters are particularly invested so it’s important to show their intense emotion.
In love scenes, especially in more explicit ones, body language is especially important, and the pitfalls are many. It’s a fine line, and too much body language can be far worse than too little. It will sound like instructions for putting together a bookshelf and will slow your story down and distract your reader. Moderation is the key.
Combined with emotion and reaction/thoughts/feelings, it’s a fantastic way of getting across what is going on inside your characters, and it is this combination that makes a love scene arousing.
Just as an aside, don’t forget dialogue. In combination with body language that signals emotional involvement, dialogue in the love scene can be very, very sexy.
Here’s a short exercise:
Add a tag line, one using body language that will emphasize what the character is saying and one using body language that makes it clear that the character may be saying one thing but she/he is thinking or feeling something else entirely.
“I’m not angry with you.” Paul stroked her hair.
“I’m not angry with you.” He cracked his knuckles as he paced to the window.
“We’ll always be together.”
“That’s all right. It wasn’t your fault.”
“I could never lie to you.”
“You really are a jerk.”
“I’m sure you did your best.”
Nina Beaumont was born in Salzburg, Austria, home to Mozart and the Von Trapp family. She is of Russian descent, and her family tree includes the Stroganoff family, Count Zhubov, who is reputed to have been Catherine the Great’s last lover, and several other interesting historical characters. She grew up in Massachusetts, USA, and has lived in Seattle, WA, but being an inveterate traveler, she has moved back and forth between US and Austria all her life—besides other interesting travels.
She started writing as a child (one of her early “works” was a 25-page sequel to GONE WITH THE WIND), and she worked for many years as a translator and editor. Her life-long interest in history and her fluency in several languages have been of great help in the in-depth research she does for her books, which includes traveling to where the stories are set.
She now lives in Austria, and she is thrilled to be back working full time on her European-set historical romances. Whenever she can pry herself away from her computer, she is liable to be indulging one of her passions—reading, cooking, classical music, and traveling. One of these days, she’s going to get back to painting watercolors. Website: https://www.ninabeaumont.com/
Visit my website to learn about the books in the Fearless Women Historical Romance Series and to sign up for my newsletter. Readers who sign up will get “It Began in Paris,” the short story prequel to SAPPHIRE MAGIC, Book 1 in this series, as a thank you.
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SURRRENDER THE HEART, Book 5 in this historical romance series, is out on June 28, 2019
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