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Communication consists of 3 elements: words (what we say), tone (how we say it) and body language (the way we act). Depending on the circumstances and the topic that's being talked about up to 93% of our communication is done through body language and tone, while only 7% is done through the words we say. Body language consists of roughly 55% of how we convey what we mean, so it's very important to keep this in consideration when writing anything relating to a character, whether it's dialogue or just their general state of being, as it greatly helps the reader be immersed in the story.
In this guide I'll go through many of the elements you may wish to keep in consideration. I've split up this guide in 2 parts. The first is the big chunk of information regarding body language, when to use it, when not to use it and so on. In the second part I'll list ways we use body language and facial expressions so you have an easy reference sheet to pull from. But before you head to that page remember that not everybody uses the same body language movements, but more on that below.
Besides the fact that up to 55% of our communication happens through body language another big reason to use body language in your writing is that it adds a whole lot of depth. Depth to the scene, depth to the emotions at play in that particular moment and depth to the characters. Some people have nervous ticks, some are terrible at disguising their true feelings, some have a great poker face and so on.
To illustrate the importance of body language here's a few example sentences:
"He quickly ran across the bridge."
"His eyes darted back and forth, he paused for a moment before scurrying across the bridge."
"He closed his eyes and took a deep breath before sprinting across the bridge."
In each example somebody runs across a bridge, but only in the second and third do we get a feeling of what the character might be feeling. There's a feeling of nervousness in the second example, a feeling that something might happen, a feeling that perhaps the character might not make it to the end of that bridge or not without being spotted.
In the third example there's also a feeling of nervousness, but it's a more controlled kind of nervousness. The third example comes across more as a person trying to race across that bridge in a personal record time or as somebody overcoming something and the bridge is the metaphor or personification of whatever the obstacle is.
Something else those previous three examples illustrate is using the right action verbs. As you probably already guessed or knew, action verbs are verbs that express physical and mental actions. Verbs like 'stand', 'think', 'run' and 'believe'. Picking the right verb helps convey specific actions and the emotions often associated with them. In the three examples I used 'run', 'scurry' and 'sprint'. They're all synonyms of each other, but scurrying is generally a more nervous way of running while sprinting is usually more associated with sports or just a faster running.
Many verbs will also change completely depending on the context. For example, rubbing your eye(s) could be a sign of annoyance, exhaustion, physical pain, hiding tears, actually having something in your eye and so on. Whether a verb can be interpreted multiple ways or not is no indication of whether it's a good or bad verb to use in a particular scene. If it conveys what the characters are feeling it's great, if not don't use it.
"Show, don't tell" is something many writers will have come across multiple times and for good reason. Showing the reader what happens helps the reader be immersed in the world and the feelings of the characters while telling will keep the reader at a distance. Both have their merits at times, but in most cases it's best to show rather than tell. The same goes for body language, perhaps especially so.
To illustrate the difference here are two example sentences:
"Relieved, she sighed and relaxed, dropping onto her bed."
"A deep sigh escaped her mouth as her entire body relaxed and she dropped herself onto her bed."
The first sentence tells what happens and as a result we feel more like a distant observer. The second example shows us how she's feeling and as a result we can easily envision a bored or exhausted character dropping onto her bed while at the same time being able to easily relate to how this character is feeling. Subconsciously you may even sigh and relax a little yourself, something the first example would rarely, if ever, accomplish.
Be wary of using too much details though. The more details you add the further away you get from what you're trying to accomplish. Too many details will cause your readers to focus on those details rather than on the feelings these details are supposed to convey. Like everything in writing you only write what's important to the scene and leave out all the non-essentials. Consider the following examples:
"Her pupils dilated as her cheeks blushed a dark red. Her hands covered her face to just below her eyes as they avoided eye contact at all cost."
"She blushed and covered her face with her hands, hiding behind them while avoiding eye contact."
The first example has way too much information and most of it is completely irrelevant. Skin blushed a dark red could just be "she blushed" or even "skin turned a dark red" (blushing and turning red are the same, so it's redundant to write both) and how far her hands covered her face is not important. Let's say eye contact needed to be made in that specific moment, you could just write "she looked up from her hands" or "she peeked between her fingers" instead of bothering with the exact position of her hands. This way the entire moment has a far bigger impact on the reader.
The second sentence expresses everything in a way somebody can relate to perfectly. The moment isn't interrupted by meaningless details allowing us to immediately move onto the next part of the scene and thus we don't interrupt the way the reader is feeling.
One element in the previous example I purposely ignored is the dilation of pupils in the first sentence. Pupils will dilate for all sorts of reasons, but we often associate them with fear or surprise. In this particular example it could also be because she's attracted to whomever caused her to blush. This specific body language, like many others, isn't very well known among people in general, so it's best not to use it to avoid confusion.
On a slightly unrelated note, our pupils tend to dilate when we're interested in something or somebody and contract when we're not. So if you see your friend's pupils contract or dilate at a seemingly random moment you'll know something either peaked their interest or bored them. You can even test it out by talking about something they love and then talking about something they dislike or hate. If your friend wants to trick you instead they'll simply think about dark places, people or things they find attractive or moments that get their adrenaline pumping and their pupils will dilate anyway.
So as you can see there are many situations during which pupils will dilate, the same goes for pretty much all of our body language. However, the vast majority are associated with only a specific few emotions and it's best to only use them for those moments to help convey these emotions. If you don't the reader will likely be left confused.
Body language is a great way of showing habits of characters, but make sure you don't overdo it. Your character might bite their nails when they're nervous or push their chest forward whenever they're around somebody they find attractive, but these habits don't have to be stated every single time they come up. If you repeat these habits too often they'll become annoying to the reader and they'll seem forced, which in turn makes the character seem unrealistic. Remember that characters can seem unrealistic even if everything they do is based on real life.
Perhaps a better example is smiling. We smile for all sorts of reasons and it's one of those emotions that creep up whenever you write what a character is doing. But if you write it too often the smiles can seem forced and fake even if they're genuine. If a character smiles all the time (or just a lot) it's better to just state that this is the case a few times rather than showing the character smiling every time they smile. The same goes for habits.
Habits are pretty much the only exception to the rule of not using unknown body language. In fact, you could create your own kind of body language for a character to make that character stand out more, but be careful as it's hard to pull it off well. A great example of this is "L" in the anime and manga "Death Note". Whenever he's thinking he often puts his thumb just under his top lip, which is something people usually don't do, but it quickly became a distinguishing character trait of L. Of course since this is done in a visual medium it's far easier to get away with it, but it can be done in writing as well.
If you want your character to have a unique habit it's usually best to base it on existing body language. L's "finger-lip-tuck" (scientific term, ahem..) closely resembles the "fist-under-chin" pose or the "finger-on-lips" pose whenever people are thinking. L's is just different enough to be unique and a little odd, matching his personality.
This doesn't mean you can't have completely unique body language habits or ones that are contrary to what they usually express, but it'll require some more thought and testing to see if it actually works well.
Also, don't feel like your (main) character(s) absolutely must have a unique habit, they don't. Everybody has specific mannerisms, but most are pretty much the same as everybody else's and for good reason too. Remember, up to 55% of our communication happens through body language. If we all had different mannerisms we wouldn't be able to communicate as well as we do.
Just as you shouldn't overdo habits so too should you not overdo the use of body language when writing a scene. It may seem like an obvious point, but it's worth mentioning nonetheless. Adding too much body language elements can interrupt the flow of the narrative just as other elements can, like using "said" too often. Like everything else in writing only write as much body language as is needed to get the point across. Anything that is unimportant or could be left out without changing the meaning of the scene or moment should be left out.
It's time to move onto the actual body language elements themselves. In part 2 you'll find lists of how we use body language for certain emotions, ranging from facial expressions to postures and anything in between. Hopefully these lists will serve as a handy guide when writing become tricky.