Adding Depth to Your Fiction—Body Language 101

Dog Body Language

Image by Gopal 1035

Today regular guest writer Alex Limberg is back with a post that will make any of your dialogue scenes sound so much smoother. His piece is about body language. Raise your eyebrows and drop your chin in delight, because Alex is about to help you get under your readers’ skin with your dialogue. Also, you should definitely check out his free checklist about “44 Key Questions” to make your story awesome. Now clap your hands: 3… 2… 1… here we go:


“Crossing my bridge on your flying rhinoceros? You better reconsider that,” the troll said and raised his fist.

When you are reading the sentence above, you know immediately what the situation is about: The troll is threatening the other person (and a flying rhino is coming your way). And the reason you know exactly what’s up is, you guessed it, the fitting description of body language. Body language is added in just four tiny words. But those four words add a lot of depth to the scene.

The physical snippet makes your reader visualize the scene; it puts the graphic image of a big, green, threatening troll fist in his head.

It also brings some nice variation to your dialogue; it’s more interesting than a plain, boring dialogue tag (“the troll said” or “the troll shouted.”)

It introduces character and overboiling emotion – you know it’s better not to tangle with the green guy.

And finally, it adds some physicality to your story, as opposed to just “blah, blah, blah” dialogue and scenic description. It makes for well-balanced speech.

Troll Warning

Image by Gil

All of this is the power of using body language.

Here is a short Body Language 101 that will help you with “puppeteering” your characters’ bodies:

1. Use Body Language Only From Time to Time

If you use body language too much, it will become annoying and obvious and lose its subtle qualities. Instead, only describe characters’ facial expressions and postures from time to time. Make them smoothly blend in with the dialogue and the other scenic description.

Sneak your body expressions into the mix unobtrusively. Remember that you have several other options to “tag” and break up your dialogue lines:

  • You could use a dialogue tag (“Let’s go to the party then!” Sandra squealed.)
  • You could describe what the characters are doing (“Let’s go to the party then.” Sandra held the invitation out to him.)
  • You could describe what else is happening in the scene (“Let’s go to the party then!” Suddenly the doorbell rang.)
  • You could just leave the dialogue line standing alone (“Let’s go to the party then.”)
  • You could describe a facial expression, posture or movement of the character who is speaking and put it directly before or after his dialogue line, to let the reader connect the dots himself (“Let’s go to the party then.” Sandra’s face lit up.)

Try to vary these options, so none of them gains the upper hand and becomes annoying. That way you will get a well-balanced and structured scene that pays equal attention to dialogue, characters and descriptions.

When you insert body language, always do it in passing and don’t give any extra weight to what you describe.

2. No Explanation, Just Body Language

If you want to look really stupid, you could write like this:

“So surely you can tell me where you were on the evening of the twenty-second of October?” George asked with eyes narrowed to slits, because he felt very suspicious about Blake’s story.

This example does both, showing and telling. That’s one too many, and the too many one is the telling part! Cut out “because he felt very suspicious about Blake’s story.

When you write like this, you also take your reader for stupid. Let her connect the dots herself – if she has followed the story, she will know why Georg’s eyes are pressed to slits.

Try it like this:

“So surely you can tell me where you were on the evening of the twenty-second of October?” George asked, his eyes narrowed to slits.

That’s much better, now we don’t even have to go inside George’s head artificially, we can just describe objectively what the reader sees.

Whenever possible, don’t name the feeling, but just show the body language. And definitely never put both of them (body language and description of feeling) together in the same sentence.

Showing, not telling is sometimes not easy to do when you are caught up in the writing process. That’s why I created my free checklist about “44 Test Questions” to make your story great. It’s a comprehensive, no-holds-barred list about what I learned makes a good story, and you can download it right away.

Body Language 1

3. Have a Very Clear Idea of What Your Character Is Feeling

Take a look at this ambitious description of body language:

“Randy held one hand in his other behind his back, then suddenly stroked his throat while he was leaning towards Linda.”

What’s happening here? Nobody knows, Randy’s behavior is too much. As far as we are aware, it doesn’t make any sense. It seems like the writer pays attention to the undertones so much, that in the end he is not really saying anything.

Don’t write so cryptically that nobody can understand where your character is coming from. A simple description of one piece of body language at a time is absolutely enough. You, the author, always have to be clear about what your characters are feeling. And their body language has to match those feelings.

4. Follow Your Intuition When Describing Body Language

But where can you take an accurate description for flattery or envy from?

Your best bet is to take it from yourself. Imagine you feel flattered by an enormous compliment, like the best compliment ever. What expressions would your face, your arms, your body be making? Totally immerse yourself in the feeling like a good actor, and see which body expression fits.

Remember the last time you felt really envious about somebody? Use that memory to immerse yourself in the feeling for a second and ask yourself how your body would react.

Reading a book about body language is also an excellent idea. The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan and Barbara Pease is a very systematic and comprehensive guide to everything you ever wanted to know about body language. I recommend it whole-heartedly.

Acting 1

5. Several Types of Body Language You Can Use

Our bodies have several ways of giving our secrets away. Here are some examples and a bit of inspiration on what’s possible:

  • Facial expressions: The human face is an endless source of expressions. Think of raised eyebrows, tightly pressed lips, blown up cheeks, wrinkled noses, wide eyes, frowned brows, poked out tongues, widened nostrils… most feelings show through several features
  • Body postures: Crossed arms, legs wide apart, foot put forward, leaned back upper body, spread elbows, locked ankles, body pointing away, tilted head… all of these have something very distinctive to say
  • Body movements: Adjusting tie, nibbling on temple of glasses, whipping foot, raising hand with palm toward opposite, flicking the hair, putting hands in pockets, grabbing the other’s upper arm, scratching one’s nose… do you know what all of these mean?

Equipped with all of this knowledge, you now have an extremely elegant and effective way to describe what’s really happening under the surface of your scene. You can now go fill your characters with overflowing emotions and life.

Once you manage to describe how their feelings subconsciously pour out of them, your figures will automatically take on a life of their own and feel like they were standing next to you in your living room. And your reader won’t be able to keep from loving or loathing them whole-heartedly.

Photo, Alex Limberg

Alex Limberg is blogging on ‘Ride the Pen’ to help you boost your fiction writing. His blog dissects famous authors (works, not bodies). Polish your dialogue, plot, characters and much more to greatness with his free checklist about “44 Key Questions” to test your story. Shakespeare is jealous. Alex has worked as a copywriter and in the movie industry. He has lived in Vienna, Los Angeles, Madrid and Hamburg.

Thumbs up, Alex!

It’s Kristen again, and I’m back to ask you: Are you guilty of completely neglecting body language in your stories? Do you have a favorite body part or movement to describe? Aren’t knees so much cooler than elbows? Do you ever forget to jump up and down when you are happy?

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  1. This is that whole “show don’t tell” thing. Love it. I was working on my story this week and found myself describing a lot of body language. At first I felt I was doing too much but this makes me feel better about it. Great post!

  2. Reblogged this on authorkdrose.

  3. Fabulous reminder.

    A great way to “tag” the dialogue and bring the reader deeper into the story.

    You can also build character this way if a particular character has a certain “tell” when they’re frustrated like chewing their pen or something .

    1. I have my MC shaking out/smoothing her skirts every time she gets flustered. It’s part of her drive to create a ‘perfect’ image.

  4. Reblogged this on Scott & Words and commented:
    I’m loving this insight. I feel like I have been using this advice recently. Have you?

  5. Nice post, Kristen!

    Thank Alex for me.

    Body language is something I try to embed in my stories, but I have no idea if I do it properly.
    At least, I could recognize that I don’t show and tell, just like Alex told us not to.

    I’m looking forward to your next post 🙂
    See you,
    Lucas Palhao

  6. Eyebrows. I always see the eyebrows first, and am going over the WIP, making sure I’ve mixed things up enough. It’s like those favorite words we all use repeatedly. Great for getting things on the page to begin with, but definitely something to go through to highlight and fix in edit-mode.

  7. Men’s knees while sitting are full of possibilities. I find a man in an expensive grey suit with “his knees just the perfect distance apart” extremely sexy.

  8. I love putting body language in my writing – there are some good books out there on body language, also some great classes and workshops.

  9. I love using body language with dialogue. I use it especially well when I’m writing something that nobody is going to see. If I’m writing what I tell myself is something to be published I panic and revert to third grade.

  10. Thats an amazing informative post! Thanks!

  11. Thanks for these great tips, Alex. Very helpful.

    • Twyla Dawn Weixl on September 17, 2016 at 3:52 am
    • Reply

    Trained as an animator to feel deeply whatever character’s emotions I’m drawing, this makes total sense to me. My motto drawing for animation was: SEE it. BE it. DRAW it. Now, working on a graphic novel, I’ve expanded that to SEE it. BE it. WRITE it. It’s also useful to write with a mirror at hand, to look at yourself as you feel your character’s emotions. A great visual reference is Scott McLeod’s Making Comics, with pages of facial expressions, from simple to complex. Not to mention my book, Twenty-two Feelings, from Nice to Nasty. (Out of print but sometimes available on Amazon.) Twyla Dawn Weixl

  12. There’s one here I don’t agree with all the way. In number one: “You could use a dialogue tag (“Let’s go to the party then!” Sandra squealed.)”

    More often than not, anything more that “She said” or She asked” for dialogue tag gets too flowery. With that stated though, having a sentence after the dialogue that shows her excitement [the squeal] doesn’t hit me as being flowery. Also, using it the way it was in the example takes away from deep POV.

    Everything else I most certainly agree with. I have inserted this post into a file to keep.

  13. I’m glad you included #3 (along with #1 – use it sparingly) because this is one of my pet peeves with critiquers who preach “show, don’t tell” like a mantra. IMO there’s a time for both.

    A lot of body language is ambiguous, so always showing it can simply confuse the reader (especially someone like me who has a hard time reading body language in real life!) Last year I struggled through a novel from an author I used to like, because it was all show and no tell. It was nigh-on unreadable 🙁

    Oh, yeah, and like some of the comments above I have my “favorite” tics that crop up time and again. Must go back and fix that …

    1. Yeah I get too many raising eyebrows, LOL.

  14. Great post! Using body language could also be one strategy for avoiding on-the-nose dialogue. A character says one thing, but her body language says something else. Also, since body language is essentially action, reading screenplays is a great way to learn how to use more action (showing rather than telling) since screenplays generally don’t have the luxury of narrative to explain things!

  15. Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog.

    • davidjrogersftw on September 19, 2016 at 5:56 pm
    • Reply

    Kristin, thanks for the post. I think it’s a good reminder to me since I almost never describe anything like that in my prose or poetry, and it’s something to think about. I’ll experiment with it. Thanks again.

    • Ness on September 20, 2016 at 11:28 am
    • Reply

    Thank you for this post. I realize in some parts of my manuscript I have been guilty of both showing AND telling. Whoops!

  16. I recently read a book where characters were constantly popping or quirking their brows. There may have been a few arched and raised in there too. It got me thinking (especially working on some dialogue heavy scenes), if sometimes it isn’t better just to come out and say someone looked surprised, curious, or playful.

    I know there are other things that can be done to show these things, but some can be overdramatic (her hands flew to her cheeks, her gaped open).

    I guess I’ll just keep reading and looking for what works well and what doesn’t 🙂

  17. Reblogged this on Live…Love…Share!!! and commented:
    Another great post for us writers by Kristen Lamb.

  18. I have to add “The Emotion Thesaurus” by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi as an invaluable tool to make sure you are not always describing the same emotion the same way. Such an amazing resource!

  19. Notice, BTW, that parts of our body language are culture-specific. For example, a Greek shaking his head says something very different than what an American may think he said. Used properly, this may add some spice to your scene by having your characters bouncing at the cultural barriers.(For example, I have a lot of fun with ancient Roman men covering both eyes with their palms and showing their tongues – a notorious gesture that meant, “Leave me alone with that!”)

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