How to write with body language

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55% of human communication is nonverbal.

Which means more than half of what you say is nothing but expressions and gestures and eye contact.

Which means if you use nothing but “he said” and “she replied” to tag dialogue, your readers are missing half the message. Besides which, body language is also an effective way to show tone without “telling” tone. For instance:

“Hmmm,” she said unhappily/happily/thoughtfully. [All “telling”]

“Hmmm,” she frowned.

“Hmmm,” she smiled.

“Hmmm,” she tapped her lips with one finger.

We have the additional benefit of cutting the dialogue tag, “said,” which can get annoying in large doses.

Of course, use of body language isn’t limited to dialogue. You can say a lot without actually saying anything (useful if, like me, you are terrible at writing dialogue):

He hunched in his chair, elbows on knees, head in hands.

She bit the corner of her bottom lip, her gaze darting left and right.

He frowned, stroking his chin.

She leaned back and folded her arms, tapping her fingers against her skin.

He cocked one eyebrow, smirking.

There are countless other gestures to illustrate countless other emotions. Here are a few (in totally random order). Got any other good ones? Leave ‘em in the comments!

Grin

Smirk

Grimace

Furrow brow

Wrinkle forehead

Slap forehead

Twiddle thumbs

Twitch/tick

Bite nail

Suck thumb

Pick nose

Run hand through hair

Twirl hair

Skip

Amble

Stroll

Lumber

Swagger

Shuffle

Bob head

Flare nostrils

Wink

Nod

Shake head

Hug self/knees

Rub arms

Shudder

Shiver

Tremble

Scratch

Rub eye

Slouch

Tilt head to one side

Meet gaze

Look in the eye

Gaze slide to floor

Blink

Start

Shrug

Sigh

Sniff

Swallow

Wrinkle nose

Squint

Shift weight

Cross legs

Eyes glitter

Eyes glint

Clap

Snap fingers

Thread fingers

Fold hands

Nose in air

Look down nose

Look sideways

Peer

Glance

Stare

Glare

Purse lips

Push hair out of eyes

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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34 Comments

  1. While reading this, I ‘looked appraisingly’ and my eyelid twitched … but I also think Stephen King had equally good advice in “On Writing.” His advice amounted to, “stick with ‘he/she said and avoid anything ending with -ly” … a rule he often breaks, himself. The point of the contradiction? Your story will tell you exactly how to draw your characters, if you’re open to listening to it. Hard and fast rules are good, but all rules are made to be broken. Only you know what’s right for your story. If you’re struggling with it, write what feels natural first; it can always be changed in the editing process.

    • I’ve heard elsewhere that people simply skim over he said/she said, and redundancy isn’t really a problem. I agree, but wherever you can sneak in more description and eliminate unecessary words at the same time, you should. You’re right about rules! You’ve got to know them through and through before you start breaking them.

      I keep hearing about King’s “On Writing,” though I haven’t read any of his work and therefore am not inclined to take his advice on anything. Sounds good, though; maybe I should give it a look.

      • Stephen King does indeed break his own rules! His On Writing book is well worth a read, even if you don’t like his work, as it’s more about his history and philosophy for writing than anything else.

        Great post by the way! I can’t stand the “-ly” use, especially when it is abused with such horrors as “he said disturbingly” or worse “he said disgustedly” which have stuck out so much in a novel I’m reading at the moment, Graham Brown, The Mayan Conspiracy. Good story but poor telling instead of showing.

        • Yeah, I keep hearing about it. I really need to check it out. I just haven’t read ANY of his stuff yet, and I kind of want to preface On Writing with a little background. Right now I’m reading Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, which is quite good.

  2. Great tips!

    I find that I use the words ‘quivered’ and ‘glowered’ a lot. Poor characters, all those scenes I write that match them well. =(

  3. What a great post. Being new to writing I have already struggled with long pieces of dialogue. I will most certainly use this in my next prompt response.

  4. Her mind grew wings: flitting over the suggested verbiage, sucking and drawing nutrients from the list provided by “be kind re-write.” Chessie’s dance accentuates her grateful “Thank you.”

  5. Sorry, I gotta go with allwaysunmended on this one. Stick primarily with “said” as it’s one of those mostly invisible words like “a” “of” “the” etc…Of course, if they’re overused, they become obvious, as does “said.”

    My take is, the dialogue and the nonverbals need to go hand in hand, but with a twist. Think emotion. What is that character FEELING as they say or do what they’re doing? That, quite often, will dictate exactly what they say and what they do.

    So, instead of

    “Hmmmm,” she smiled.

    More like

    Her left eyebrow arched and her eyes danced playfully. “Hmmmm,” she said, a finger twirling a long lock of hair.

    Now, be honest…did you even notice the “said” in that?

    One final note: if you have trouble with dialogue, the two masters of it right now are Elmore Leonard and Charlie Huston. Study anything by either…they both kick ass.

    • Read above for what I said to alwaysunmended. I don’t have a problem with he said/she said per se, but like all thing in writing, if it can be eliminated, it should be.

      Your example is a good one; the way you’ve wrriten it makes the “said” necessary for flow, to break up the body language. But you’ll notice it’s a bit passive and just a tiny bit clunky:

      Her left eyebrow arched and her eyes danced playfully. “Hmmmm,” she said, a finger twirling a long lock of hair.

      Instead, try:

      “Hmmm,” she arched her left eyebrow, her eyes dancing playfully as she twirled a lock of hair with one finger.

      If you moved the “hmmm” to the end, you could add a “she said,” but is it really necessary?

      Thanks for your thoughts Tobin, and thanks for the Leonard/Huston recommendation!

  6. Wow. What a list. I kept scrolling and scrolling… will definitely have to come back and sift through this when I need some help describing what my characters are doing.

  7. Thanks, Stephanie. I have SO much to learn, it’s nice to absorb it in a fun way.

  8. I’m starting to use even the word “said” sparingly. Instead, I’m trying to use more action and body language.

    She slammed the file down on the desk. “What’s the meaning of this?”

    “I’ll get right on it.” He leaned back in his chair and put his feet up on the table.

    I find that I don’t miss “said” at all. And it forces me to pay attention to nonverbal cues.

  9. I’ve moved towards using “he/she said” rather than stretching myself for an adjective that may fit awkwardly–and I admit that King’s On Writing helped point me in that direction–and I think it’s helped my writing improve. Of course, I still try to use characters’ body language whenever possible; I just try to mention it gracefully (always a work-in-progress, naturally). You’re right–it’s an important and often overlooked way to communicate character.

    One more thing: formatting is important. “‘Hmmm,’ she frowned” is actually wrong, I think, because the act of frowning does not make a sound. Rather, it should be written: “‘Hmmm.’ She frowned.” or “‘Hmmm,’ she said, frowning.” While the frowning is done in conjunction with the “hmmm,” it is a separate action.

    • It’s the adverbs that can really kill style. And synonyms for “said” are often worse than the word itself. I think body language often, with some “said”s every now and then, is just the right mix.

      Commas and periods, you might be right. Although I think it also depends on the timing.”‘Hmmm,’ she frowned.” tells me she is frowning and saying “hmmm” at the same time, whereas “‘Hmmm.’ She frowned.” sounds like she says “hmmm” and THEN frowns. That might just be me, though.

      • I see that, and that’s why I used to use it (and many people still do). It’s common enough that I don’t even know if editors care about it, but it still strikes me as grammatically and logically incorrect. The “…she said, frowning” construction suggests simultaneous actions, though it does have to make use of both words. *shrug*

        Adverbs, yeah, that’s what I meant, haha. And here I am talking about grammar. Both adjectives and adverbs can kill style and make style wonderful–but they should be used like spices, like strong flavoring. A good recipe isn’t cluttered with too many different flavors, but chooses just the right ones for a desired effect. Descriptive words should be used the same, I think! Plus I love a good culinary metaphor. +)

  10. I agree with David on the adverb/adjective front. Over-using both has been something I have fought in my own writing, and I realize that my work is stronger with fewer well-placed adjectives and adverbs.

    However, on the he said/she said front, I have a different take. Sometimes “said” is the right choice, sometimes body-language, and sometimes the correct choice is… neither. Have you read any P. G. Wodehouse? I consider him one of the top wordsmiths of the English language, too often dismissed because his style is so unassumingly comedic. I began to realize, a while back, that I loved his dialogue. Then I looked closer at his dialog, and what did I see?

    From Joy in the Morning, by Wodehouse:

    “Stap my vitals, Stilton,” I cried, in uncontrollable astonishment. “Why the fancy dress?”

    He, too, had a question to ask,

    “What the hell are you doing here, you bloodstained Wooster?”

    I held up a hand. This was no time for side issues.

    “Why are you got up like a policeman?”

    “I am a policeman”

    “A policeman?”

    “Yes.”

    “When you say ‘policeman,’” I queried, groping, “do you mean ‘policeman’?”

    “Yes.”

    “You’re a policeman?”

    “Yes, blast you. Are you deaf? I’m a policeman.”

    I grasped it now. He was a policeman…

    ::End excerpt::

    And there is my theory of dialog in a nutshell. Thank you Wodehouse! There is body-language, one sees “cried” and “queried” but all simply dart in like sheepdogs to keep the dialog on track, and then are gone. The rest is spare, quick and utterly clear. I can see the exchange, I can hear it, and I enjoyed it, and there was nothing flowery or extraneous to distract me. I was never confused as to who was speaking. I love it!

    • Great example! Some of the writers for Inspiration Monday have done all-dialogue stories, done entirely without descriptors or tags or anything. It’s quite punchy and does a great job of “showing.” When it’s three or more characters, though, it gets a little more difficult.

  11. It does become more tricky with more than two, but the concept that one doesn’t need to indicate who is speaking on every line really helped me improve in my writing. Now I actually think about whether or not I need to clarify. All-dialog stories fascinate me.

  12. Aye, indeed. Accents are so tough, and I am always wondering where to “draw the line” as far as how much accent to include in a story. Currently I am writing a story where I am including dialect close to accents of my native Tennessee, and it adds the correct atmosphere, but I fear it will be a block or an irritation to readers.

  13. Hopefully minus the inhaling of water…

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