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?
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