There’s an old statistic that may or may not be true: 55% of communication between humans is body language, and 38% is through tone of voice. According to this, only 7% is expressed through words themselves.

Being a wordsmith, I don’t subscribe to this. I think words carry much more than 7% of communication. However, I can’t deny that body language and tone do speak louder than the words. Since you can’t show body language in a book, it’s fortunate for us that the human imagination can fill much of that in. It’s unfortunate that, without guidance, that imagination can easily lead the reader astray. Consider this short passage of dialog, stripped of context other than “said”:

“Baby, you know I love you.”

“Sure you do.”

“Seriously. You’re just right for me. We were made for each other.”

“Uh-huh.”

Now with action:

He smiled, touching her hair. “Baby, you know I love you.”

She snuggled closer. “Sure you do.”

“Seriously. You’re just right for me. We were made for each other.”

“Uh-huh,” she said as she gently kissed his neck.

Now with a different mood.

“Baby, you know I love you.” He stood there, looking shocked, the damp towel dangling loosely from his fingertips.

Her lips tightened. “Sure you do.”

“Seriously. You’re just right for me. We were made for each other.”

She cocked the pistol. “Uh-huh.”

In both of these, the words are essentially filler. The story is carried entirely through the accompanying physical movement.

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Most writers manage characterization through action instinctively. Nevertheless, it’s important to understand what you’re doing. There are three basic types of action you can show: overt, covert, and unconscious. Overt is like charging into battle, or launching into a speech. Covert is tightening your hand on the pistol, or the silent, calming exhale of breath just before the speech. This is what is generally referred to as body language. Unconscious is your heart suddenly beating faster prior to either action.

There are also four basic types of body language a writer can show: facial expressions, physical gestures, posture, and spatial orientation. Expressions are the most obvious: smile, frown, pursed lips, eye contact. Don’t overuse these. Physical gestures can be anything from flipping the bird to touching to nervously lighting a cigarette.

Posture indicates how a character carries himself – like Bruce Lee, taut and ready for anything, or like The Dude, extraordinarily laid back and going with the flow. But it indicates more than that: it tells the reader how characters approach the world and interactions with it. Firm handshakes and limp ones say very different things. A character who is constantly aware of his surroundings, glancing around, checking reflections, is paranoid. This, too, is a posture – an unconscious way of positioning oneself in the world. Folded arms and a straight posture indicate guarded listening; leaning toward the speaker indicates interest, and sometimes attraction.

Spatial orientation is very similar. A character that stands very close to the other characters creates tension – sometimes romantic, sometimes threatening. (Try it. Stand three feet away from a friend while speaking, then six inches away. Watch the change in your friend’s reaction. Too close will almost immediately make your interaction tense – or romantic, depending on the friend.) Characters who won’t meet your eyes are probably lying; this indicates discomfort. Turning your back on others, looking at a phone while talking, and even sitting at a distance increase tension because the others know that you are disengaging and not fully involved.

The best thing about covert and unconscious actions is that it tells the reader what the character is thinking and feeling even when he does not know himself. A character thinks she is in love, but won’t sit near the object of her affection. Or a character stands too close to the object of her affection, not understanding that she is being rejected. When the body language of a character does not match his or her thoughts, it builds tension quickly in your story.

Building awareness of body language in your everyday life will make you a better writer. Observe your own body language; do you cross your arms during arguments, or get up and pace when the news irritates you? How do you move to invite your dog to come and play or interact? Do you hold yourself differently at work versus when you’re out with friends? Observe the same things in other people. Get a good book about body language, or make it a habit to read online articles about it. Be skeptical, too. A lot of so-called experts on body language are wrong, particularly those who try to make it a science, like those who claim body language alone can flawlessly tell you when someone’s lying. It’s simply not true. Everyone’s body language is a little different. There’s also such a thing as foreign body language – not every culture shakes their head yes in the same way, for instance.

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Overt action also demonstrates character. Does your character charge into a fire or hesitate? Does he use a gun, or does he prefer a knife? Does he tackle adversity head-on or does he try to slip around obstacles? Overt action is far less subtle than covert and unconscious action. Think of covert/unconscious action as things that build your tension, and overt action as the thing that releases. Your character is going to assassinate the president. He sits in the window, cradling his rifle. Sometimes he taps his feet. He watches the track that the sun makes on the wall, glances at his watch. His heart pounds faster when he thinks about what is to come, so he tries to think of other things. At last, he hears the motorcade approaching. He positions himself, heart pounding, to watch for the president to come in sight. He sees him. His finger tightens on the trigger. He aims carefully.

He shoots.

The only overt actions above are “he positions himself” and “he shoots.”  The positioning is where the tension ratchets way up – it’s what you call a plot turning point, the point at which there is almost no way out. “He shoots” is a complete release of all the tension built up by the covert actions.

Build tension through quiet covert and unconscious action.

Release tension with your overt actions.

Inhale. Exhale.

 

Exercise: Write a short dialog, verbal exchanges only, between two characters in your WIP. Then add in action in different ways to tell different stories. Pay close attention to overt and covert action.

Resources: Your favorite and most page-turning novels. As you read them, try to spot overt/covert action and the four types of body language.

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Part 1: Point of View: Whose Story Is It?

Part 2: Healing Wordiness and Making Yourself Clear

Part 3: Political Writing 101: Start With Theme

Part 4: Political Writing 101: Creating Compelling Epic Heroes

Part 5: Writing Stealthcon 101: Plots That Don’t Preach

Part 6: Characterizing Through Appearance

Part 7: Nine-and-Sixty Ways: When Writing Advice Conflicts

Part 8: Characterization 101: Characterizing Through Dialog

Part 9: Doing Dialect Right

Part 10: Beats, Said, and Quipped: Who’s Talking?

Part 11: Scene & Sequel: ThickeningPthe Plot