Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Body Talk

(You Say It Best) When You Say Nothing At All
by Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz

In the real world, human communication doesn’t depend exclusively on the spoken word. On the contrary, the non-verbal aspects of communication in any conversation entail a whole range of signals – both voluntary and involuntary - including vocal inflexion (pitch, intonation, changes in breathing), facial expression, and body language (posture, gesture, manner of movement). Consciously or unconsciously, these non-verbal aspects of communication bespeak our moods, intentions, personal likes and dislikes, social attitudes, and responses to any given situation.

Playwrights have the luxury of being able to rely on their actors to supply all the relevant details of intonation and body language to bring a scripted scene to life on stage. In fiction writing, however, the writer has to inject occasional descriptions of body language into the text to show us how characters are reacting to circumstances. This kind of detailing enriches the tone, atmosphere, and texture of the story overall.

This is especially true in passages of dialogue. Take for example the following very basic four-line script.

Scene: two people meet at a bus stop.

Speaker One: Nice morning, isn’t it?

Speaker Two: Beautiful.

Speaker One: Do you think it’s going to last all day?

Speaker Two: Your guess is as good as mine.

Pretty flat, huh? Ok, let’s recast this exchange as fiction, adding in aspects of intonation and body language:

A man dashed across the street and ducked into the bus shelter. Shaking the rain from his jacket, he remarked, “Nice morning, isn’t it?”

Maisie backed up to avoid getting splattered. “Beautiful,” she muttered.

“Do you think it’s going to last all day?” the newcomer asked chattily.

Maisie made a show of studying the bus timetable. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

The addition of these extra features sets up the contrast between the two characters: the man is good-humored; Maisie is in a bad mood. He’s inviting further conversation; Maisie attempts to rebuff him. This raises our interest: Why is she so grumpy? Will her mood prevail over his and make him shut up? Or will he persevere and talk her into a better frame of mind?

Of course, given the original script, simply tweaking the body language of the participants will completely change the tone of the scene. Let’s try it again:

The man dashed across the street and shouldered his way into the bus shelter. Pushing his way past Maisie, he growled, “Nice morning, isn’t it?”

“Beautiful,” Maisie agreed with a rueful chuckle.

The man adjusted his collar. “Do you think it’s going to last all day?” he demanded irritably - as if Maisie would know.

Maisie sighed inwardly. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

Now the situation is completely reversed. For whatever reason, the man is behaving very boorishly. Will Maisie’s temperate responses to his snappish remarks make him aware of his behavior and alter it? Or will she leave the bus shelter and walk on to her destination in the rain just to get away from him?

In fiction, as in life: it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Make this precept work for you!

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.


  1. First, the song is great. Love it.

    Second, intonation and body language say it all. Whether we see it when watching a movie or stage play or hear it when we are within earshot of others' communications or read it in a book, we learn about the characters as much through actions (body language and tone of voice) as we do through words. Good reminders for us writers, Debby. We don't want to keep our readers in the dark because we neglect this all-important element.

  2. Knowing when and where to focus on body language and using brilliant wordsmithing to illustrate it are skills worth developing. It is too often flat and meaningless, thrown in without thought. An entire conversation can occur between the right glance and gesture.

  3. I have a great critique partner who reminds me of these things when I forget. Sometimes I'm so involved in the dialogue, I forget that there are actions that go along with it. Good post, Debby, especially since I'm in the middle of a scene that needs all the body language I can develop.

    1. I know what you mean, Polly. I love writing dialogue too; it's one of my strengths and my writing session seems to fly by if I'm mainly capturing what my characters are saying.

  4. I'm thinking an even better example (since we're talking body language in this post) would be to remove the dialog completely. They're only talking about the weather after all - no necessary information is being imparted in that exchange... so remove it in favour of pure action and body language.

    The man dashed across the street and shouldered his way into the bus shelter. He growled as he pushed his way past Maisie. Involuntarily, she took a step back, and then chuckled ruefully at her own nervousness.

    The man adjusted his collar irritably, revealing a scar that Maisie examined in glimpses as she pretended to read the movie poster beside him. Not a scar: a gang tattoo that he'd tried to have removed.

    She took a step back for real.

    In the distance, thunder rumbled. Maisie chewed on her lip as she willed the bus to arrive.


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