The Next Layer Of Dialogue: Body Language

Last week, I participated in J. A. Allen‘s Sunday Scribble Challenge, wherein we write a brief entry in response to a prompt. This was last week’s prompt:


Two sentences isn’t much space, unless you write a bunch of clauses with commas, and those aren’t my style. So I had to rely on something else to relay a dishonest character.

Body language1

Ah, body language, the magnificent medium to communicate much more than our words. We rely on it in our daily lives. The most popular statistic states only 7% of communication comes from the words themselves – the rest comes from body language and elements such as tone and inflection (click here for an article explaining these numbers in more detail).

Makes you wonder how much we really say via texting, doesn’t it?

In fiction writing, body language does several jobs. We use it to show how a character is feeling or that they are hiding something. It functions as beats so we don’t need tags. It’s also helpful to set mood. Take a look at these two sets of dialogue. The only differences between them is the body language of the characters.

I ended the call and smiled at my daughter. “Grandma’s coming over.”

Gabi beamed and jumped to her feet, dropping her doll’s crown in the process. “Really? When?” She bounced on her toes.

“In an hour. Now go get dressed.” I rushed to the kitchen to assemble lunch supplies.

Now compare to this:

I ended the call, scowling. “Grandma’s coming over.”

Gabi’s shoulders slumped, letting her doll fall next to her leg. “Really? When?” She blinked rapidly.

“In an hour. Now go get dressed.” I trudged to the kitchen and pulled whatever mildly acceptable food I could find from the fridge.

From these two bits, we can also use body language to infer back story. What would you say about the circumstances for each chunk?

While the story impacts how the characters act and react, the types of body language you use also depends on the characters themselves. Men and women tend to use different mannerisms. Personality plays a role. Perhaps your MC has a nail biting habit or wiggles her leg under the table. Certain emotions usually appear in body language, as outlined in these charts.

body language

body language2

Now, some of these have been overused (I know a couple of authors with aversions to anything that has to do with eyebrows). I tend to get overly comfortable with a few favorites. My challenge to you and to myself is to branch out – use “new to you” mannerisms that add another layer to the narrative. It might even be fun to try a flash fiction piece that uses only body language for communication.

Also, you writer types should check out Jenny’s Scribble Challenge for this week. They’re a fun way to see how other writers attack a single prompt in a concise way. Plus, if your submission gets the most votes, you get a little feature on her blog!

As I sit here with narrowed eyes and my head resting in my hand, I leave you with this question: Are there places in your story that would benefit from more descriptive body language? 


14 thoughts on “The Next Layer Of Dialogue: Body Language

  1. Hello, Allison,

    Your blog post with well written collection of gestures for each of the possible emotions is timely for me. I would like to mention here that, I bought a copy of Emotional Thesaurus a few months ago, and I was really tired of using it. I always wondered how to become creative in using it, for simply substituting the language does not have the proper impact on reader’s mind.
    I see your list a bit more straightforward to use just after a dialogue. Also, some of the gesture listed are commonly used by CC authors. The scene will have more impact on reader’s mind if we make use of these items. And your short dialogue about Grandma’s arrival showed the difference! Thank yo for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading and commenting! 🙂 You’re correct about some of these appearing often on CC – some are overdone as we fall into our favorites. Finding new ways to say the same thing is where the skill and art come in, I think.


  2. One fun body language thing we used to do in sales was nod our head when we were suggesting the person buy the product. Subtly, of course, to reaffirm the “buying decision,” and who knows if it worked or not? But we did it in interviews, too; lots of situations. Getting co workers to decide where to eat lunch, dating… Good stuff. Allegedly.

    I like the list. There’s nothing wrong with having additional resources to go to and then gathering a smaller list for each character’s typical go-to body language. Barry bites his nails when he’s nervous? He probably ought to do that throughout the story. And if later in the book we see he’s biting his nails, we’ll know right away what that means!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I got super into this when I was writing my police procedural. I wanted to convey hints about people’s honesty and comfort level without using the over used ones, like rubbing ones mouth before speaking signaling a lie. It’s amazing what how small a clue can be to what someone is really thinking.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m curious – what hints did you end up using?
      One I frequently see now that I know about it is when someone is saying something affirmative but they are shaking their head – means they don’t believe what they’re saying.

      Liked by 2 people

      • nodding. I used the tie one. It’s a signal that the speaker doesn’t believe what they are about to say.
        Throat clearing is also a signal the speaker is uncomfortable with what they are about to say or do.
        I used some other things as fake signs, when the “doer” was legitimately not aware, and misleading the detective on accident. LOL

        Liked by 1 person

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