Why Body Language Matters
Body language is one of those things that most of know about, even if we don’t know that we do. The consensus these days is that as little as 7% of what we communicate is the actual words we’re using. The rest of it is body language and tone. Only 7% of what other people hear from us are the words that leave our mouths. Which makes dialogue a tricky thing to get right and it’s often something that authors struggle to nail. It’s quite easy to add that extra layer of depth to both your generic storytelling and your dialogue by including that little bit of extra information. I’ll break it down into non-verbal and verbal.
Roughly 38% of communication comes down to the tone of voice, with another 7 coming from the words we use. The 7% is a whole other topic, so I’m just going to be focusing on the tone for this essay. People very rarely just say anything. Even with a banal conversation about what coffee someone’s drinking, the tone of voice will probably convey their lack of interest or boredom at the topic. Their tone will be lacking anything.
“I’m drinking a vanilla latte,” Bob says.
“I’m drinking a vanilla latte.” Bob’s words were as cold and empty as his heart.
I’m not saying that the second sentence is good. But I get nothing from the first one. I know that he’s drinking coffee. From the second I get a sense about Bob’s world for that brief moment. I see a man who is going through the motions, someone who probably does the same thing every day, goes to the same coffee shop and orders the same coffee every single day of his miserable life. You may take something different. But I imagine you’ll take something. Tone of voice can change the entire feel of what is being said.
“I love you.” Bob’s voice was low as he moved closer to her. His voice breaking with each word.
“I love you.” Bob’s voice was low as he moved closer to her. His voice delved deeper into a growl with each word.
The two sentences have a very different feel to them. Bob didn’t change. He did and said the exact same thing. His tone changed and that changed the entire meaning of what was being said. Because of its power to do this, you need to make sure that you tell the reader if the meaning is important. If you just said “I love you” the reader will have their own interpretation of what was being said. If you’re going for the first one, you’re probably alright. If you’re trying to write the second one, the reader will get the wrong end of the stick.
Non-verbal communication, body language, is one of those things that’s really hard to quantify and describe. We all do it and we all watch people do it pretty much every waking minute of every day. But that’s all subconscious. We don’t pay attention to it and our brain figures it out for us. Which means you’ll lean towards leaving it out of your writing. Here are the big ones in body language.
There are around 40 muscles in your face that control how it contorts to convey a secret message to other people. It’s, mostly, a subconscious reaction to your emotions, which is why we struggle to fake things. We don’t know how to smile or frown naturally. We can control the obvious bits, but the subtle bits that convey the actual emotions are much harder to control. But a fake smile can be just as telling as a real smile. Use a person’s facial expressions to let the reader know what’s really going on in a scene.
The way that people carry themselves says a lot about what they’re feeling. Are they leaning into the conversation—showing that they’re listening and involved—or are they leaning backwards—showing their disinterest or detachment? Are they standing with confidence and dominance or are they submissive and weak in their posture? It says so much about who a person is in general, as well as how they’re handling the situation you’ve put them in. Does their posture show that they’re protecting someone else by standing in between said person and a third party?
Humans love to gesture when we talk. We’re always waving our arms around and flicking our hands somewhere. If I’m honest, reading a real account of dialogue with all the gestures in place would get boring very quickly, for me at least. And it would end up detracting from the points you’re trying to make if you have three lines of description after every single line of dialogue. Some are more important than others. The subtle tucking of a strand of hair behind the ear to convey a level of attraction or flirtatiousness. The covering of your mouth because you’re unsure of what to say or because you’re trying to suppress what you’re actually feeling. The folding of the arms. Is there person walking with their arms folded across their chest—closed off an uninviting—or open and welcoming? Is their fist clenched by their side because they’re angry at the situation but are powerless to do anything? There’s a lot you can do with gestures and people do a lot of them. They’re a great way to show in a scene, instead of telling.
How close are your participants when they’re communicating? Close and personal or far off and emotionally distant? How close people get to each other in certain situations is very telling, especially when combined with the other attributes of body language. It says an awful lot about how people feel about either the other person, or the situation that they’re in.
Body language is an incredibly powerful tool to strengthen both your scene and your writing in general. It can be the difference between a dull, lifeless series of words and an engrossing story. If you are struggling with it, I would highly recommend focusing on other people’s body language for a bit. Have a conversation with somebody and focus on the aspects I’ve listed. Take note of all those things and you’ll see how much information is actually coming out of a person when they’re communicating. What they say doesn’t really matter, it’s only 7% after all. The rest of it is important and you need to make sure that you include it in your writing.
© 2016 Davina Chime
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Davina Chime is a Thanet-born hopeless romantic.