Friday, August 9, 2013

Writing body language to express feelings

Did you know that the amygdala (feeling part of the brain) transmits the emotions to the rest of the body within less than a second? That means if you are good at reading body language very few people, unless they are well trained, can actually lie to you without you knowing. Human beings are sensitive to body language, facial expression, posture, movement and tone of voice. When I worked as a psychotherapist I used to start a session by reminding myself to listen as much to the client's body as to what she or he was saying. That's why it is really hard to do an interview or therapy session over the telephone or email. Skype isn't perfect but much better.

If you are a people watcher you probably started in childhood, and you can probably tell someone's feelings at a glance. You know the true meaning of his or her communication. Most kids start very young to watch their caregiver's faces and the changes in their bodies so the kids can please them. Maybe they are afraid of being punished and wish to avoid the pain and disapproval at all cost. Some kids blank out and don't notice their parents' body language at all. That allows them to ignore knowing what is expected of them. Actually they tend to have less anxiety then those who watch continuously. Both methods are normal and are functional when the child is young. Later on? Maybe not.

But for a writer it is essential to understand body language so you can portray your characters in such a way that you don't need to mention feelings. You can create more tension and truth by showing how the body of the character shifts. You can contrast what a person is saying with what the person's body is telling you. It's a great way to show inner conflict. And most of your readers will get the meaning on an unconscious level if not on a conscious one.

Here are a few jestures you can use in your writing. Guess the feelings involved in both parties.

Just a note of warning. Not all cultures use the same body language so make sure to check that out when you write about other parts of the world.

1. Her eyes opened wide and her jaw dropped as the cat sprang toward her.

2. He stood with his legs apart, both feet firmly on the ground. He crossed his arms on his chest and his eyes stared into mine.

3. When he came up to her and said, "Hello", she blinked, stiffened, and tightened her hands behind her back. She glanced down at the ground, her body swaying slightly back and forth.

4. He straightened his body and looked ahead, walking with a swing to his steps.

5. She sat across from Teresa, leaned toward her, and placed her hand gently on Teresa's arm.

6. Jeff held out his hand. The senator's eyes bore into his. His jaw tightened and he came nearer, almost touching Jeff. He placed his hand on top of Jeff's hand and shook it hard. Then he smiled a stiff smile and said, "Glad you could come."

7. The muscles around his eyes crinkled and his jaw relaxed. He laughed a deep throated laugh that seemed to come from his belly. I gave him a tight hug and said, "Wow! I have missed you Don."

Well, you get the idea. I suggest you get a good book on body language to help you in your writng.

Here are two I like:
The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan and Barbara Pease  Bantam Books, 2004.
The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writers Guide to Character Expression by Angela Akerman and Becca Puglisi.

But your best bet is to take any opportunity you have to watch people interact in various places. Your home is a good place to start. Write down your results so you won't forget.


1.By the way, if you read my Wednesday blog, I have good news.
The horse is not dead!
He was merely asleep.

2. Writing North Idaho is planning to conduct a short survey to help us understand what you would like to read on this site. What would be most helpful or entertaining to you? We would love to hear from you, our reader.

1 comment:

Jennifer Rova said...

To get the mule's attention, first hit him on the head is an old saying. I am the mule. Reading body language is a skill way down on my ability scale next to painting and singing. Thanks for the tips.