Show, Don’t Tell: Writing Body Language

“Play? Pay good money to watch people stand around and talk for two hours and they call me a conman.” – The Greatest Showman

P. T Barnum’s comment in “The Greatest Showman” highlights a problem that both actors and writers run into while working on a scene; watching people stand around and talk is boring. When you add the special stances that actors require, such as “cheating out” to keep their bodies easily viewed by everyone in the audience, creating an interesting and natural scene is a challenge. As an author, this problem is encountered in scenes that are dialogue or description heavy, especially scenes when the information conveyed is more important to the storyline than the character’s action.

An actor counter-balances this by adding natural movement into a scene. They pay attention to quirks their character might show that would convey his personality, they interact with props in specific ways that indicate their mood, and they might even say one thing with their words and another with their body language.

Movement is key, not only to create a believable character but as an integral part of telling the story itself. Even the shyest writer can glean ideas to breathe life into a scene by approaching the movement in the manuscript with the mindset of an actor.

Find the Existing Movement

Take a moment and highlight all of the existing movement already in the scene. You may surprise yourself at how much movement and meaning you’ve naturally written. Are there any words you can switch to add clarity to a character’s mood or motive in the existing manuscript?

Define the Scene Goals

Every character will have a goal for this scene. Often this goal will be a response they are trying to gain from the other characters or something they want that character to do. This can be a physical goal (I want you to give me gas money) or an emotional goal (I want you to fall in love with me.) The scene goal is resolved within or soon after the scene and is not the core need of the character, which highlights a theme throughout the book. What is your character trying to do and get out of the current scene? How does that move them closer to fulfilling their overall goals and needs for the book? Answering these questions will let you know what kind of movement you need to highlight to enhance this particular scene.

For example, I have reproached a simple scene that I drafted today. It involves two characters walking and having a conversation. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much movement at all, and even less that would indicate a chance to build character or give away emotions or unspoken thoughts. But we’ll start by finding the basic physical movements and goals. The man is going to catch a wild horse. The girl is going to the well for water. There’s nothing special in the man’s movements but the girl is half walking, half skipping which pegs her instantly as a morning person, adds humor to the scene, and also hints that she is excited about something. Because she is going for water, she will be carrying a bucket. The bucket is not in the manuscript yet, but it has the potential to be added as a prop that she can interact with.
Instantly I realize I can convey her emotions simply by having her fidget with the bucket; she may run her fingers across the rope to distract herself if she is uncomfortable, she may hold it carefully so the rope doesn’t marr her hands if she is self-conscience about her looks, she may returning from the well and slosh water onto her skirt if she is distracted, careless or excited. Or she may slosh water on the man’s shoes, adding a bit of humor as she tries to mop up the spill, embarrassed because this man is a leader and she is convinced that he is hiding special abilities.

Inner Motives

In order to know which movement I want to highlight, I will look for the characters’ inner motives as well as their exterior tasks. The man is on an errand he doesn’t want to be accompanied on and he is also in a hurry so he can be home before his wife and children need him. The girl is on her way for water, but she is also trying to put herself in the vicinity of a certain boy whose attention she is hoping to gain – without giving away that she’s trying to be noticed. None of this will be conveyed in dialogue, so we must rely on movement and reactions to indicate these tidbits to the reader. Knowing this, I will focus on tearing the man’s attention between the girl’s chatter and his destination. He may be walking a little faster than normal, he may be glancing back toward his house where it is still dark, or monitoring the number of people awake and about. He might answer her distractedly. The girl’s focus will be on her appearance, both during her idol-worship of her clans’ mysterious leader and for the boy she fancies. Now I can break her long paragraphs of dialogue with relative movement. Perhaps she is checking her fingers for marks of the rope and notices her nails are dirty, so she hides them in her skirt as she walks. If she is attempting to carry herself as an adult, she may hold her shoulders back, then revert abruptly to childhood by dropping the bucket of water to run to the boy. I don’t want to clutter the scene with too much description, any more than I want to write so little that it only gives the reader a vague picture so I will choose the best actions to convey the meaning of the scene and delete meaningless ones.

Focus on the Core Need

Now that it is clarified through her actions that the girl is simultaneously trying to pry information from a man she is convinced is half-god and boyfriend-shopping, we added humor to this scene. But the scene is written from the man’s point of view and as the reader, we already know that he is fully human, only set apart by a birth defect. His Core Need is for people to see him as an equal and throughout the story, he has swung from being considered the bottom of the food-chain forced to serve masters, to his current status as a leader, protector, and perceived mythical creature. During this scene, he will be trying to convince the girl that he is nothing except an ordinary man. Unlike his counterpart, he does not have a prop and he is reacting more than speaking.
We know from the existing movement that he is quietly amused at the girl’s morning chatter and a bit startled by her statements. My goal with his actions would be to emphasize his humanity as he seeks to combat this idea that he is some sort of supernatural protector of his new clan. She is also speaking in a language he is just now learning to understand.
So we may have him set his hand on her shoulder to slow down her words, he may actually stop her chatter with a humorous sign for her to stop and breathe. He might frown and pick at a frayed sleeve during her claims of his secret identity. He may notice that in his hurry to leave the house, he left his shirt half untucked. Even something as simple as tying his boot helps to ground his humanity. Or he could tug his pants up, indicating a lean winter. He might notice the large stitches his wife left while learning to sew. He might show her the callouses on his hands in his growing agitation to be accepted as an equal.

Setting Up a Future Scene

The reaction the girl gains from the boy she fancies as she runs to him will help set up a future scene: if it is favorable we know her father will be lamenting his daughter’s entrance into youth. If he rejects her, we’ve just confirmed her claim that the boys don’t want her mixed clan blood and the bubbly mood will pop.
The man may pluck an apple from the tree, both to entice the horse he seeks to tame and establish the setting as fall, the food as abundant. He may eat the apple and then plant the core – indicating plans for the future as well as playing into a future tradition on the island. He may be so distracted by his musings that he eats the apple himself and realizes it only when he approaches the horse. Or the apple may be rotted, indicating a coming crop failure, hunger, or simply changing the mood of the scene to prepare for something grimmer.

How to Add Relevant Body Language to Your Scene

These tecniques are a great way to enhance your writing skills or even add interest when you are revising a scene that you’ve been over a dozen times and are sick of looking at. Here are the steps together:

1. Find the existing movement.
2. Define your character’s goals for the scene.
3. Choose actions that will reveal inner motives.
4. Emphasize any references to your character’s core need through reactions and movement choices.
5. Foreshadow and set up the next scene by dropping clues into your scene’s action.

Though it’s tempting to focus on the storyline and dialogue, by approaching the scene with the eye of an actor called to perform it, you can find a full array of action choices that will enhance the scene. Take a moment to read over your scene and mentally walk through the actions of the characters involved. Jot down any and all ideas and then insert the strongest choices. Remember, when you’re writing a novel, you are limited to the number of words you can use to tell your story. By making every action count, you can make a tighter, more vivid scene with characters who move and react in realistic scenarios. Remember as the writer, you are the director and you can choose exactly what you want your reader’s mind to notice.