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Using Body Language to Write Stronger Characters

Sometimes I look up from writing a scene at my computer and my family is watching me.

One or two of them look concerned. Another one is muffling laughter behind their hands. And my husband? Well, he’s got the “she didn’t tell me she was a writer when I met her” look in his eyes.

Looking around the room, I realize I’m at it again: my brow is furrowed. I’m muttering under my breath. Maybe running my fingers through my hair. Or maybe I’m twisting my hands together in front of me. Or biting my bottom lip. Or trying to figure out how a person produces a crooked half smile … I mean, is that even possible?

Admit it! If you’re a writer, you’ve done it too — acted out a character’s facial expression or posture, trying to figure out how to best write emotion so that you show, don’t tell.

The challenge goes beyond not wanting to look crazy to our family — although there is that. It’s wanting to move beyond the  descriptors we’ve read before and come up with something fresh.

You can only read about a character chewing on their thumb nail (nervousness) or rubbing their hand on the back of their neck (frustration) or standing with their hands fisted on their hips (defiance/anger) so many times before you think “Been there, read that.”

Last week, when I found myself waving my hands in the air — and yes, looking up and seeing my family watching me with that “oh, no, here she goes again” look — I abandoned my solitary game of charades and tried something different:

I googled the phrase  body language for frustration.

  • One website showed a basic image of — you guessed it — a man rubbing the back of his neck with his hand. This, it turns out, is a very common signal for frustration. But the website also listed other ways we express frustration, including:
    • vigorously scratching your hands or face
    • tapping your hands against your lap
    • shaking your foot repeatedly
  • Another tumblr post by Reference for Writers worth checking out is 41 Emotions as Expressed through Body Language
  • And then there’s this Body Language Cheat Sheet from Writers Write.
  • You can also type in a phrase like angry body language or sad body language and than click on the “image” link and explore the different images — some of which will be highlighted with descriptors to help you better understand body language.

The point is this: Don’t settle for the first facial expression or posture or hand gesture that comes to your mind. Odds are, you’ve written that before in a previous scene or chapter.

When I read through my manuscripts — fast drafts to galleys — I weed out the repetivive body language, along with the repeated words and repeated plot points. Nothing needs to keep showing up over and over in your manuscript — unless a particular action is there for a reason, like a character who has a  bad habit of chewing their nails.

Are you using body language to build strong characters?

[Tweet “Use body language to create strong characters @bethvogt #writer”]


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Thank you! in typewriter

Social Media Minute—Eight Social Media Updates You Should NEVER Share

by Edie Melson @EdieMelson

Social media is all about connections. It’s a digital community where relationships are built. IN this community, the relationship building takes place in much the same way as in a physical community. The foundational component is sharing—sharing lives, sharing thoughts, sharing hopes and dreams. But with all this sharing, there are still things we don’t need to know about one another.

I hate to say this, but I’ve seen all of these irritating updates show up in one or more of my social media feeds. My reaction on seeing these has ranged from mildly irritated, to what-was-she-thinking shock. I’d love for you to make note of these, and avoid them completely.

8 Social Media Updates You Should NEVER Share

  1. The stream of consciousness updates: Now that I’m up, I’m having coffee. Back from the shower and trying to decide what to wear. Dreading the mountain of laundry staring me in the face. Trust me, none of us care. So quit clogging the feed with visual noise.
  1. The cliffhanger update: You’ve seen them, they’re those thinly veiled attempts for sympathy. I’m so angry I could spit. Why do people have to go out of their way to do rotten things. Crying in the corner…. Ninety-five percent of us are just irritated by these updates. The other five percent can’t resist the ploy and ask for more information. If you need to vent and can’t do it online, call a friend. (Just FYI, this also applies to those photos you might post of you doing something dangerous. The image to the right is one I found of our son while browsing my FB feed. It’s a good way to give your mother gray hair, not to mention a stroke.)
  1. The I’m on vacation updates: I’ve heard of so many instances where the homes of vacationers have been burglarized all because the family posted updates about their travels. Telling large groups of people your house is going to be vacant is an open invitation for a robbery. Be smart, share your vacation photos and stories after you get back home.
  1. The vicious rant update: You’ve heard me say over and over again that you should never post anything negative about anyone online. That’s what I’m talking about here. It’s hard enough to mend relationships when you just speak the words. Putting them in writing will ensure you’ll be fighting this battle the rest of your life.
  1. The Unverified pictures of missing/ill/ abused/dying children update: There is a lot of junk floating around social media. For some reason, certain sick people use emotional updates to further their own gains. They sign up for accounts under false names and use the likes and shares to build a presence online. When we don’t take time to check whether or not an update is true, we clog the feed and further the nefarious schemes of these lowlifes. (to verify an online story, visit http://www.snopes.com/info/whatsnew.asp)
  1. The let me break it to you here update:We’ve all seen these, too. Glad to be alive, just totaled my car. Wow, look at this cool cut on my hand that’s dripping blood in the shape of a cross (yes, one of my boys sent this one). There are others, but you get the idea. Trust me, social media isn’t the way to break bad news, even if the end result was no big deal.
  1. Specific information and pictures of the children in your life:This one is serious—life-threateningly serious. We live in a world that preys on children. I can’t stress enough the importance of censoring what you share about them online. This means being smart about everything from embedded geo codes in photos, to what schools they attend, and what activities they’re involved with. Be smart and keep the kids safe.
  1. The invitation to play a game update:Now I admit this one is my personal peeve. But you might be surprised by the number of people who share my irritation. If someone I know chooses to play games, that’s fine. I’m not making any judgments here—I enjoy a good game of mahjong and 2048 as much as the next guy. But please don’t clog my feed with invitations to join you. If you need more lives and the only way you can get them is to invite friends to also play, be courteous and check with those friends first.

These are the list of things I never share online. I’d love to know what you’d add to the list.


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Act 2 Tune up

Hitting the NaNoWriMo Blues – how to keep your scenes from sagging!

Are you in the middle of your NaNoWriMo project?  By now, you might have 20-40K words written…and along with feeling tired, your scenes are feeling, well, tired.

I get that.  There are only so many ways to describe emotion, and by now, you might be feeling wrung out.  At this point in the game, don’t worry as much about getting the emotion on the page as driving the story forward with the right amount of tension.  You can go back and layer in the emotions later.

Why is tension so important?  Because tension not only drives a story – but it will keep you going all the way to the end.  But a scene has to have the right set up to create that key tension. .

Many writers fall into the trap of writing what I call, the police report. They simply tell us what happened/is happening, as if they are narrating the story, or letting the characters narrate what is happening. Sure, there are “things” that happen in the scene the might be interesting, but without the right set up, the scene is boring. It has nothing at stake, nothing for us to root for (or against), and frankly, if we don’t know what the character wants, we are left wondering…why are we here?

How to fix this?  The first fix it to prop it up with the right structure. 

There are 3 kinds of scenes: Action Scenes, ReAction Scenes and Combo Scenes.

As a review, Action Scenes contain a Goal + Conflict/Obstacle + Disaster (or some compelling element at the end of the scene to push the story forward).

ReAction Scenes contain a Response + Dilemma + Decision. (which translates into a Goal to start the next Action Scene).

A Combo Scene starts with a ReAction Scene (maybe 1-4 paragraphs), then transitions into an Action Scene.

(You can also rearrange and write an Action + ReAction combo, but I find those slow the story. However, they can be compelling, simply because of the new Goal that is raised at the end of the scene.)

The First Chapter of a book is an anomaly: It is mostly Action, however it starts in Home World, which might feel like a reaction to your character’s life so far. Your character walks onto the page with years of “reaction” to his hurts of the past, believing lies and wanting something.  This is quickly confronted by some sort of Inciting Incident.

Chapter one, Scene 1 is often followed by a ReAction scene, where your character has to figure out what to do next.  And after that, perhaps another Action scene.

However…the story quickly begins to morph into Combo Scenes, which comprise the bulk of a story.

This is where the storytelling seems to turn into boring narrative. However, this can be solved by simply setting up the Combo Scene correctly. Remember, to create tension you need both a Goal and an Obstacle…and the Combo Scene provides these ingredients.

A Combo Scene starts with a ReAction Scene – so you’ll set that up first. 

Combo/Scene Set up

 Step One:  Response.  Start with the 5 Ws, Storyworld and the current “state of affairs.” If you have to, reiterate what happened, in the character’s POV (especially if it’s been a while between scenes) and help us understand the Dilemma at hand.

Step Two: Knowing the Dilemma, have your character see his choices, then make a decision. This is your character’s Goal for the Action portion of the scene. *Don’t forget to fortify the Motivations of your character’s action and decisions.* The point of this is to give us a good reason for what is going to happen next.

This is the end of the ReAction portion of your scene. It might be one paragraph, or if there is a bigger dilemma, it might two or even four.

Step Three: Now, you, you move into the Action portion of the scene. Set it up with your Scene Tension Equation, and remember to end with a new Dilemma.


Here’s a quick example from my romantic suspense Expect the Sunrise.  The heroine has just escaped from her captors and flung herself from a cliff into a raging river with the hero looks helplessly on from the other side.


[Setting, and Current State of affairs, goals e.g. the REACTION from the previous scene.]

No! Mac froze as he watched Andee fling herself over the edge. She’d materialized from the woods like some forest animal and screamed as she hit the air. His knees gave out as she plummeted into the white water below.

A man appeared right after her, pointed a gun where she’d been, then advanced to the edge, searching.

Mac picked up a rock and with everything he had in him threw it across the gorge. It hit Andee’s shooter in the neck. The man fell back and shot at Mac. He dived behind a boulder. Bullets chipped rocks around him, but it bought Andee time. Precious time.


[Motivation for decision/action]

Except, well, if she didn’t get out of that river fast, hypothermia would grab her like a bear after hibernation and pull her under. That is, if she didn’t go over the falls first.

Go, go, Mac willed the shooter. He peeked to see him disappear into the woods. Good. Maybe they’d believe they shot him.


[Starting the Action!]

Mac advanced to the edge, searching for Andee. He saw her, a black head bobbing in the water. “Andee!” Giving one last look at the hole in the forest left by the shooter, Mac flung himself over the edge.


[end scene]


Short and sweet, we have his reaction, his dilemma, his decision, his goal and the conflict.

A Combo Scene doesn’t have to be high action, however. Here’s the same set up in a low-action scene.

This is from my new book – When I Fall in Love! 


[The State of Affairs, Response, Dilemma- the ReAction portion of the Scene]

The last place Max wanted to be was riding up Jace’s penthouse elevator, about to face his old captain with the news that he’d let him down.

Apparently he’d perfected that MO. First Brendon, then Grace, of course, and finally Jace.

And probably himself, because of the thousands of promises he’d broken, over and over and over during the three weeks in Hawaii. Like, don’t date a girl more than twice. Never date anyone connected to the team. And finally, don’t let a girl into your world—hockey, cooking . . . heart.

Yeah, he’d broken that one and he still couldn’t look at himself. At least Grace had gotten home okay. He’d called to check on her flight. But he should have at least texted her. Wow, he’d turned into a grade-A, first-class jerk.

Or maybe he’d always been that.



The doors opened and he took his time dragging down the hall to Jace’s door. He still couldn’t figure out why he’d agreed to come. But Jace’s voice on his machine, his insistence that Max come over for dinner . . . it sounded less an invitation than a command.

Although, maybe that was just Jace. Bossy. Always the enforcer.



He leaned on the bell, and almost immediately, the door opened. Jace stood there, a mountain of darkness as he glared at Max.

Huh? “Hi?”

“Get in here.” Jace practically hauled him in by his shirt and it took everything inside Max not to swing at him.


Then he saw her. Standing in the kitchen, her arms wrapped around herself. Looking fragile and beautiful, she took his breath away just as surely as if Jace had hit him. He closed his mouth, swallowed. “Hi.”

“Hi,” she said.

He looked at Jace, keeping his voice low. “I didn’t realize—I mean, you didn’t mention—”

“That Grace was going to be here? Yeah. I was going to surprise you, dude. After what I saw on the Internet, it seemed like you wanted to be together.” He held out his hands. “You can imagine my surprise when I heard that you ditched her in Hawaii.”

Max ground his jaw, looked at Grace, back to Jace. “I . . . I’m sorry.” He glanced at Grace. “I’m sorry.”

And he had nothing more than that. He couldn’t be here, with her. Even as he glanced at her again—just one more glimpse of her before he walked out of her life—he was shaking his head, heading toward the door.


(Check out more about When I Fall in Love here!)


Set up your combo scenes with a short Reaction scene, establishing strong motivations and goals – and you’ll have the ingredients to create a powerful scene. Next week I’ll give you a little equation about how to build fantastic scene TENSION.

Until then –

Go! Write something Brilliant!

Susie May


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