Posted by: nancycurteman | December 29, 2011

Dialogue: Body Language Communicates More Than Words

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In real life body language communicates more than words. Only 7% of meaning is communicated with words leaving 93% of meaning presented nonverbally. This is important information for mystery writers. If dialog is a critical vehicle for moving plot forward, then body language is a critical element of good dialog.

When writing dialog intersperse it with body language that consists of facial expression, posture, gestures and actions. In writing body language consider your characters’ emotions—anger, sorrow, love, hatred, fear, worry, guilt—and feelings—exasperation, disbelief, defiance, disagreement, confidence, boredom. Here are a few examples of ways to express meaning through body language.

Anger-Her jaws clenched then she knocked his gift of roses to the floor.

Boredom: While he explained, she checked her watch, looked around the room then started drumming her fingers on the desk.

Sorrow: She didn’t answer. She just stared in silence while tears began streaming down her cheeks.

Insincerity: She dismissed his question with a fake smile.

Love: Her eyes brightened and she answered his proposal with a big kiss.

Exasperation: He frowned, rolled his eyes and shook his head then stomped out of the room.

Body language communicates more than words. Mystery writers can add variety to their novels by replacing some dialogue with descriptions body language.

More Writing Tips:

Interior Dialogue: A Great Tool for Mystery Writers

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Responses

  1. The examples you use here pinch every emotion they are meant to. You bring out the best of writing + emotion = vivid, captivating reading.

    I know you only used one, maybe two sentences, but they were all executed perfectly. For me, anyway. I tweeted it out to my followers. 🙂

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    • I appreciate your comments. Use of body language and action to show communication between characters is an area I’m still working hard to perfect.

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  2. Nice post. I’ve always thought the entire 93/7 split between body language and speech was silly (try going mute for a day; see if you can communicate 93% of your dialogue to your friends and family with only subtle body language), but action is certainly a wonderful way to spice up your writing.

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    • I agree body language alone would make for a rather stark story scene. Body language is important because it conveys feeling and mood more clearly and often more honestly than words. It’s easy to lie about how we feel, but it’s pretty difficult to hide the true feelings our body language conveys. Also, actions can convey feelings more dramatically than mere words. A slap in the face makes the emotion of anger abundantly clear.

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      • Absolutely. That’s a big reason why I’m a writer very opposed to the expert opinion of using “he/she said” so often in writing. They claim it’s “invisible”, but not only do I feel the opposite, it also portrays little to no emotion. If you see my writing, you’d notice the frequent use of beats. Motion, gestures, action. They all translate emotion and mood to your reader far better than cop-out attributions like “said”.

        I have always found the percentages the “experts” come up with rather funny though. Clearly, body language is powerful, but the 93/7 split? Us uneducated fools just aren’t smart enough to understand, I suppose.

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    • I would ask the question: How did the experts come up with that 93/7 percentage? Body language versus verbal communication would be a bit difficult to measure accurately. How many people did they measure for how long? Too many variables.

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      • I suppose some people are just so incredibly smart, that what they say must be true, yes?

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  3. Good points, NC.

    I would add that once we “set the stage and the mood,” we should move the dialogue front and center again. When a writer keeps giving me the same body language information in different ways, I check my watch, look around the room, and drum my fingers on the desk. 😉

    .

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    • Too much body language like too much dialogue or too much of anything “makes me check my watch, look around the room, and drum my fingers on the desk.”

      Great comment, Nancy.

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  4. Wasn’t it Aristotle who said “character in action”? Your examples are great, and yes, it’s much better to SHOW the emotions than to write “she was sad” which is what newbie writers do, and something I did many times as well in the beginning.

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    • Alannah, you are so right. In fact, body language doesn’t lie. Emotions always sneak through. If we describe behavior carefully, we have no need to explain that the character is sad or happy or exasperated.

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  5. You have perhaps hit on one of the most difficult things to do with words. Clearly, as your list shows, it can be done. The trick, I think, is to do it subtly.
    A real challenge.

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  6. I think my examples may be a bit exaggerated for the purpose of demonstrating the basic concept of show rather than tell.

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