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BODY LANGUAGE The Hidden Dialogue by Zetta Brown

Actions speak louder than words.

For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction.

 

Authors should remember these two sayings if they want their writing to have dimension. But when it comes to showing action with description, how much is too much?

In Victorian literature, info dumps were the norm, but readers today can do without them—to a point. Personally, I accuse Nathaniel Hawthorne for killing my tolerance for lengthy description. The second paragraph of The House of Seven Gables puts me to sleep better than any dose of melatonin.

But there is a trend among a lot of authors who insist that the reader does not want lots of detail or description to bog down the story. In my opinion, this is just an excuse for lazy writing. Skilled authors know a strategically placed info dump can have more impact than a single descriptive sentence carelessly thrown in for the sake of decoration.

 

Body language is a form of description, and when used wisely, you can give your writing more depth for your reader to sink into your story.

Think about storytellers, people who literally tell a story before an audience. They understand the importance of conveying and balancing action and reaction. Take the following example:

“Oooh, what big eyes you have, Grandma!”

“All the better to see you with, Little Red Riding Hood.”

 

We all know this story (or something similar). Now imagine you have been tasked with entertaining a large group of pre-school children for a half hour. You decide to hire a storyteller. Two volunteers from the local theatre society offer their services, so you audition them. Will you choose the actor who merely recites the tale or the actor who makes the tale come alive?

Emotional moments are good places to insert body language, and when I say “emotional” it can range from the extreme to the notable lack of. Adding body language will affect the story’s pace, and during a dramatic or emotional scene, pace will either pull in your reader or shut them out.

I read many manuscripts where the author will rush a climactic moment because they are so eager for the reader to know the answer to their burning question. I call them Blink-and-Miss-It Climaxes.

The following excerpts are from a short story of mine called “The Grass is Greener” about a respected, middle-aged, church-going woman, Stella Chapin, who is also a successful marijuana supplier. Stella is about to confront one of her dealers, Pinky LeBeau, about some “accounting discrepancies.”

 

The first example is dialogue only:

“Have your boys been short changing you?” Stella asked.

Pinky hesitated a moment.

“It’s . . . it’s possible. It’s easy to lose track on the volume we handle. See, I got boys over near Baton Rouge and—”

“But, baby, I can do it,” Stella interrupted. “And I definitely have more volume than you. You want me to send Oakley, Harold, and Casey to lend you a hand?”

“No. No, I’m fine, Miss Chapin.”

“Good. Because I’m beginning to wonder if you’re trying to drum up some action at my expense. I can’t allow that. Because, you know what? You have nickel and dimed your way to a debt of $6500.”

“Naw, naw, naw! I have paid for my stuff, Miss Chapin.”

“Shh, baby. Don’t get excited. It’s not that you haven’t paid, Pinky, it’s that you haven’t paid enough.”

 

Can you follow what’s going on? What would you say about the relationship between Stella and Pinky? Is it hostile or full of concern? Is the atmosphere is tense or casual?

Depending on the context surrounding the scene, I could possibly get away with this simple in-and-out exchange. Maybe it’s early in the story and the reader isn’t too invested into either character yet.

But what if this is a tipping point in my story? Maybe I’ve been teasing the reader that something big is going to happen…and this is all I give them.

 

Here’s the full version:

“Have your boys been short changing you?” Stella asked.

Pinky hesitated a moment.

“It’s . . . it’s possible. It’s easy to lose track on the volume we handle. See, I got boys over near Baton Rouge and—”

“But, baby, I can do it,” Stella interrupted. “And I definitely have more volume than you. You want me to send Oakley, Harold, and Casey to lend you a hand?”

The suggestion made Pinky look over his shoulder to see the men in question. There they were, all of them, sitting on bales of hay like three prize fighters, staring at the two of them sitting at the desk. Pinky touched the crescent-shaped weal across his throat; a souvenir from the last time the boys “helped” him.

“No. No, I’m fine, Miss Chapin.”

“Good. Because I’m beginning to wonder if you’re trying to drum up some action at my expense.” Stella’s smile disappeared and the warmth she exuded moments ago evaporated between heartbeats. “I can’t allow that. Because, you know what? You have nickel and dimed your way to a debt of $6500.”

Pinky shook his head. His lips set in a thin, straight line of defiance.  “Naw, naw, naw! I have paid for my stuff, Miss Chapin.”

“Shh, baby. Don’t get excited. It’s not that you haven’t paid, Pinky, it’s that you haven’t paid enough.”

 

Notice the body language in the sample above? Is your impression of Stella and Pinky any different? What about the mood? Is it more or less suspenseful than the first example? Is your interest piqued at all?

By inserting some “reaction shots,” hopefully I’ve conveyed more about Stella and Pinky’s character. Plus, the additional words slow down the pace so the reader can absorb what is a key moment.

The above post is merely a brief primer. Below is a short list of books for you to consider adding to your personal reference library. I have more to say on the topic but my space is limited. My hope is to get you thinking about taking more time to flesh out your writing with body language and enhance your reader’s experience.

 

Suggested Resources

The Body Thesaurus – Dahlia Evans

The Dialogue Thesaurus –Dahlia Evans

She Sat, He Stood: What Do Your Characters Do While They Talk? – Ginger Henson

Emotional Beats: How to Easily Convert Your Writing into Palpable Feelings – Nicholas C. Rossis

 

Love this? Check out Zetta’s webinar:  WEBINAR: The Elements of Style…Sheets: How to Create Your Own Style Sheet with Zetta Brown ~ October 11 @ 9 p.m. EST  with SavvyAuthors

Bio

Zetta Brown is an author, small publisher, and professional editor with over twenty years of experience helping authors at every level of their career. She has nurtured and published new authors who have become award winners and even an Amazon bestseller.

Visit her website at zettabrown.com.

Zetta Brown is an author, small publisher, and professional editor with over twenty years of experience helping authors at every level of their career...