There are three things I love to talk about (in no particular order):
- Body Language
For this article, I’m going to talk body language, specifically the study of body language for writers and how that study can be used to improve writing.
To start, let’s talk about some basics and a little bit of the science.
What is Body Language? Communication using body movements (including facial) or gestures instead of, or in addition to, sounds, verbal language or other communications. Considered “paralanguage” which describes all forms of human communication that is not verbal.
Which basically means it’s everything you do except talking or other verbal expressions—grunts, sighs, etc. This is a big subject to talk about and I certainly can’t do it great justice in a blog post. Even in the class I’m giving that starts on the 6th covers a lot but really is only a little deeper than skin deep.
I used to figure that most of us don’t think of communication being beyond what we say or hear. I’m not sure that’s true any longer; however, I think most of us don’t know how to incorporate what we know, what we’ve learned, and what we are hard-wired for into our stories. Or into our overall communication repertoire.
The goal is to show you what you can do with body language, at least inspire your interest in learning more. The class digs deeper in various aspects of body language and how to incorporate in your writing.
Here’s an example. Let’s say you are sitting in front of an agent or editor. You’ve worked hard to keep your tone modulated, a smile on your face and in your eyes, sitting up straight—you know the drill. And you’re perfect at it.
But… Your body’s language may be telling the agent/editor a whole other story. For instance, your pupils are probably dilated due to the stress and your respiration has increased. Maybe your cheeks are flushed. Despite trying to relax your arms, your shoulders likely tensed. In the beginning, your body’s angle was away from the agent/editor.
As you talked, you realized it’s not that scary (okay, sometimes it is but for this purpose it’s not) and found a connection (the agent/editor is really nice). Good stuff. If you stood back and looked at yourself, you’d see that your body is now angled closer, facing the agent/editor. Under the table, your toes are pointing at her. Your cheeks return to their normal pink and the stressful smile (yes, it’s stressful) is now natural.
All of the above happened while you were focusing on the other stuff—you just didn’t know it. It’s done instinctively. For the most part, we can’t control it. We are hard-wired to do this. And guess what? The agent/editor is hard-wired to notice even if they don’t know they do. As your body is instinctively talking to her, her body is talking to you.
Body language is a relatively young science—less than 50 years old. The first book written on body language was written in the 1970s by Julius Fast based on research done by Charles Darwin in the 1960s.
So, while body language as a science is young, the language is old.
Our ancestors were experts at reading body language. I’m going to take a lot of detailed information and give it to you in a brief bite. Did you know that 55% of our communication is done with our bodies?
I discuss this in my class but if you want to read more, there’s a couple of excellent resources. One of my favorites is What Every Body is Saying by Joe Navarro. He calls this hard-wired system “living our limbic legacy.” What he’s referring to is our mammalian brain (Paul MacLean, 1952). This is the part of our brains that “reacts to the world around us, reflexively and instantaneously, in real time, and without thought.” (Navarro, 2008, 23)
Did you get that? That part of our brain, the “honest brain” (Goleman, 1995, 13-29) is our survival brain. It’s the one that makes our bodies do things without us knowing and even when we don’t want them to.
Like when your heroine meets the hero for the first time and her body goes, “Well, hello handsome” even if the heroine thinks she dislikes him because he wants to pull down her favorite old tree. If hero is highly observant at body language, he’ll see that she’s attracted to him when she licks her lips, play with her hair or other ‘hello, handsome’ body response.
The above is one way writers can have fun with body language in their stories. Either character can respond to the signals their bodies are giving—their response as hard-wired as the others.
One of the big ones to have fun with is the freeze, flight or fight response. That’s our limbic brain in action. In a split second, your body has decided which one to do. Sure, you can “change” your mind but bottom line, when you are faced with something dangerous or even unsettling; your natural response is one of the three. Usually, in that order but sometimes, depending on the influence, you can skip. Navarro does an excellent job of explaining these responses.
I like this one because there are a lot of opportunities to work this into a story. We might think of the freeze, flight or fight response as something on a bigger scale but it can work in small ways too.
Here’s an example. Your heroine, a woman who has no time for love, finds herself standing in a long line behind a good-looking guy. She meets his eyes, there’s a zing of attraction. Even as she smiles, she slides her tote bag from her shoulders and across her body. What do you suppose the message is? She’s smiling. Does that mean she is giving him a come-hither look? Possibly. But what about the tote bag? What do you think she’s saying when she puts that in front of her—between them?
That is a flight response. She’s trying to escape a threat, to distance herself from danger. What is the danger? In romance, it’s falling in love when it’s the worst time. Or in mysteries and thrillers, maybe it’s the man being interrogated who rubs his eyes or rests his face in his hands. These are flight response. They aren’t literally running away which is what we tend of think of for flight but they are fleeing anyway.
This is why body language is so much fun in writing. You can play with character responses and even while your reader may not specifically know that the woman putting her tote bag in front of her is flight, their own hard-wired brain will sense exactly what’s going on. Brings depth to your characters and stories. That is the purpose of learning about body language.
Cassiel is presenting It’s Not What You Say: Body Language Basics for Writers starting on February 6 at SavvyAuthors. Come join her for a great workshop!
Cassiel Knight has worked in the publishing industry as an author and editor for over twenty years. She has taken her love of the industry far and is now the proud owner of Champagne Book Group, an independent small press that has been around since 2004. Champagne Book Group has continued to grow and now boasts authors in all corners of the globe.
In addition to running a successful digital-first publishing company, her passion about the industry, craft and the business of writing, especially within the romance genre, has led to her actively mentoring writers and teaching numerous workshops, both in-person and online for Savvy Authors and several writing groups.
As an author, she writes (when she has time) paranormal romances with “kick-assitude” that blend archeology and mythology. Cassie’s books are available from Samhain Publishing, Kensington/Lyrical Press and Champagne Book Group. Her professional credits also include freelance editing and non-fiction writing.
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