Your Ultimate Guide to Body Language in Dialogue

Your Ultimate Guide to Body Language in Dialogue

23 Awesome Comments

“Don’t tell me the entire apartment is under water.” Curly scratched his head. “I scuba dived only in the living room.”

You read the dialogue lines above, and you immediately know about the situation: Curly is confused.

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!

Let’s say you wanted to give your entire scene a completely different meaning. All you would have to do, is change that body language snippet. Just read the dialogue again, but this time replace the body language part with one of the following parts:

Curly raised his fist. (He is pissed at somebody and maybe threatening them.)

Curly sniffed back his snot. (He is devastated.)

Curly grinned and rolled his eyes. (He is a looney bin and a little destruction doesn’t faze him.)

Yes, that little description of physical movement is so powerful, it gives your scene a completely different context. You describe a lot with very few words. But at the same time, you achieve much more:

  1. The physical snippet makes you visualize the scene; it puts the graphic image of a wide-eyed guy with his fingertips in his hair into our heads.
  2. It also brings some nice variation to your dialogue; it’s more interesting than a plain, boring dialogue tag (“Curly said” or “Curly stuttered”).
  3. It reveals character and unstable emotion – you know you are dealing with a pretty whacky, entirely confused guy (with potentially wild hair, “Curly”).
  4. 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.

All of this is the power of using body language.

In this post, read:

  • Which 4 other options besides body language you have to demonstrate dialogue
  • The worst mistake you can make with body language
  • Where you can get perfectly fitting body language description

And like always, oh esteemed reader, a tasty, tasty free download is on the menu. This time, it’s a 2-sheet-summary of this post; it will give you a quick overview of its most important points. Print it out, and put it next to you on your desk, so you have it in front of you while you write. Or just store away safely in a drawer and forget about it (or dig it out from time to time to review):

Body Language CU 3D Image

Now raise your eyebrows and drop your jaw in delight, because here is my complete Body Language 101, summarized by five quick tips that will help you with “puppeteering” your characters:

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. Don’t forget that you have several other options to “tag” and break up your dialogue lines:

  • You could just leave the dialogue line standing alone (“Let’s go to the party then!”)
  • You could use a dialogue tag (“Let’s go to the party then,” Eleonora squeaked.)
  • You could describe what the characters are doing (“Let’s go to the party then!” Eleonora 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 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!” Eleonora’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.

Body Language in Dialogue, Rabbit

Emotion: Angry

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 George’s eyes are pressed to slits.

Write it like this instead: “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.

That’s much better, now we don’t even have to go inside George’s head artificially (“George felt suspicious”); we can just describe objectively what the reader sees. By laying out our dialogue and scene well, we can be certain she will know what’s up.

Conclusion: 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.

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 depicting anything but undertones…

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

Body Language in Dialogue, Joyful Pig

Emotion: Overjoyed

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 how your body responds.

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. I bet you are super imaginative, so you can do it!

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.

Body language in dialogue, Alien

Emotion: Unknown (Different Rules for Aliens)

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, tapping foot, raising hand with palm toward opposite, flicking hair, putting hands in pockets, grabbing the other’s upper arm, scratching one’s nose… do you know what all of these mean?

Those are just some pointers. Try to come up with authentic, unique expressions you have noticed with yourself or with people around you.

And there you have it, 5 quick tips. Which means it’s…

Writing Prompts Time

Pick one of the following dialogue lines, and replace that ugly, telling adverb (or adjective) with body language:

“I will never again come to one of your parties,” Paul said angrily.

“What does this headline say about the Labour Party?” Annabelle asked curiously.

“You better not break your fingers when your drive in that nail,” Jill said in an amused tone of voice.

“Come on! Go, go, go, go, Aaaaaalbert!!” They cheered him on excitedly.

“That rain is a drag,” Ernesto said sadly.

“Thank you very much,” she said, visibly flattered.

The (Not So Bitter) End

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 dialogue. You can now go and fill your characters with overflowing emotions and life.

Once you manage to describe their body language accurately, your figures will automatically take on a life of their own: They will feel to your reader like they were standing next to him in his living room. And your audience will embrace them, and love or loath them whole-heartedly…

Get Your Handy Free PDF Summary of This Post:

Body Language CU 3D Image

Image Credits: Lama: Photoplace/Fotolia; Angry Bunny: Serkan/Fotolia; Pig: Piumadaquila/Fotolia; Alien: RATOCA/Fotolia

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23 Awesome Comments. Join in!



23 Comments

  1. Alice

    I came over here to your blog because I was looking for something for my character to think, feel, see after passing out on the lawn.

    “Come on! Go, go, go, go, Aaaaaalbert!!” Elise and Brian ran along the sidelines till Albert’s wheelchair disappeared around the bend.

    1. Alice

      Everything I thought about the last ten days seemed to be action. I must write a lot of action in my draft. I have to check that out when I get back from visiting my mother. I’m probably too late with a revised sentence but here goes.

      “Come on! Go, go, go, go, Aaaaaalbert!!” Brian wrapped his arm around Elise as she raised her eyes toward heaven.

  2. Lady Adellandra

    Greetings!
    I usually try to show emotion in my characters’ body language. I learned a lot from this post and even picked up a few extra pointers along the way. Thanks for this brilliant view into the body language of characters!

  3. Diane Hiuse

    This was extremely helpful. I was so over he said, she sneered or they laughed, etc. I have used body language but you have given me a great tool to use it correctly and sparingly. I love reading all your helpful hints!

  4. scrivener

    AWESOME! Really?

    From my Thesaurus: Awesome (as in “amazing”) adj. : inspiring awe or admiration or wonder; “New York is an amazing city”; “the Grand Canyon is an awe-inspiring sight”; “the awesome complexity of the universe”; “this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath”- Melville; “Westminster Hall’s awing majesty, so vast, so high, so silent”  

    These 9 comments are QI – quire interesting – not AWESOME!!

    Aren’t we writers? Can’t we calibrate simple language better than this?

  5. Arvilla

    “I will never again come to one of your parties,” Paul said angrily.
    This could be changed to:
    “I will never again come to one of your parties.” Paul’s face flushed.

    One small note: In this example, 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. Why not just say , “George’s eyes narrowed to slits” and leave out the tag asked.

    1. Alex
      Alex

      I like it. You would just have to make sure that the context tells us the flushed face comes from anger (and not, for example, embarrassment). The rest of the scene would hopefully make us understand that.

      George example: Yes, you could definitely do it like that too. Your example sounds more elegant, but both are fine.

    2. Will Bontrager

      Ah, I like Paul. Playing with that character is fun.

      Here are couple more:

      “I will never again come to one of your parties,” Paul said with fists balled.

      “I will never again come to one of your parties,” Paul hissed through clenched teeth.

      Flouncing out of the room would be more action than body language. But it sure makes an interesting picture 🙂

      Will

  6. Keri Vandongen

    I steal inspiration from your FABULOUS analogies, Alex.
    Your point about SHOW, don’t tell is perfect for marketing. SHOW, don’t tell others how great you are.
    Even picked up reminders to vary facial expressions when public speaking. Not just gestures and body movements.
    Thanks for being a wealth of information.
    Dreaming of watching you repair overcooked body language during live demos on the Medium platform.:)
    ~Keri

    1. Alex
      Alex

      Hey Keri! Ha, “telling a story” with your face when public speaking sounds like good advice. Us humans just love, love, love emotions…

      I have no experience with public speaking, BUT my webinars will be coming soon to you guys. Watch out for them! 🙂

  7. Pip

    If Curly’s name indicates that he has curly hair, then surely we can guess what Randy is thinking as he leans in towards Lisa??!! (https://www.thefreedictionary.com/randy)
    Mind you, in Australia we probably wouldn’t assume that a guy called Curly has curly hair. It might even be more likely that he has dead straight hair (just as guys called Shorty tend to be really tall here). Or maybe the poor guy got a really bad perm 20 years ago that his mates will never let him forget?
    Info re body language is great. Thanks 

  8. K.

    I hate to be a party pooper, but the first sentence is punctuated incorrectly. Curly scratching his head is an action tag, not a dialogue tag, so the comma should be changed to a period.

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