Adding depth to writing using body language


Published: 9 Dec 2020

Body Language for writers

Anthropologist – Charles Darwin is accredited with first noticing non-verbal cues in human and animals in the late 1800s. However, it wasn’t until around 1964 when Paul Ekman uncovered the true science of body language. Until then writers had to use their words to portray gestures, micro-expressions of the face, and emotions of their characters.

Body language is part science, part observation, part intuition – all of which can be added to writing.

Jane Austen used language, that although perfectly formed, lyrical, and memorable, failed to show us the emotions that the movie added depth to.

Did you ever notice Darcy’s body language in Pride and Prejudice (the movie)?

With around 1.40 of the movie still remaining, you notice (if you are reading the body language) that Darcy has already been smitten by Miss Bennett. It’s a simple gesture – and over in the blink of an eye. He takes her hand with his right hand as he helps her to a carriage. She simultaneously has that first inkling that he may not be what she first thought – in a long lingering glance back at him, and he holds her gaze (8.2 seconds is the love chemical/spark moment in body language). As he releases his hand and walks away, he flexes the same hand (his right) that he has touched her with and opens his fingers (frustration – at himself) for not saying something else to her.”

All of this takes seconds in the frame. and yet it has the ability to shift perception away from a predictable perception that he is a pompous ass, to vulnerable and emotionally inept. That one gesture may stop you making assumptions about him. Because as we soon uncover, he is actually a decent bloke – righting all sorts of wrongs behind the scenes, for no reward or kudos, and with his ego fully in check.  I do not remember noticing this moment in the book at all.

Body language, gestures, micro expressions, tone of voice all add depth, layers and nuances to characters, bringing them to life on the page and on the screen. Showing emotions, and the complex and often random set of pre-conditions that make a person who they end up becoming.

In Emily Bronte’s classic Wuthering Heights she uses words often, that today would raise an eyebrow if used in the same context. And yet at the time there was no other way to portray heightened emotions back then. In the first 55 pages the word ejaculated is used 15 times and intercourse around 7. In the day ejaculated was a common word to say ‘very quickly’. Intercourse was merely used as a way of conveying a group of people were communicating.

Today we might say “her hands were animated as she spilled the story”. To show a group of people were communicating we would use parameters of proxemics in body language or single out individuals by giving them our focus in eye contact, feet placement or lead extremities direction.

Words she uses like ‘expostulated’ (strong disapproval) in real life would be backed up even before the words were formed and whilst the intention still brewing into wagging fingers pointed in someone’s direction, or a jabby hand (or both) out from the body with fingers open (frustrated and disapproving) or closed.

How then do we add depth to writing by including non-verbal communication – tone, gestures?

In Wuthering Heights Bronte uses a beautiful description to explain the usual micro expressions on Heathcliffes face that make him appear surly.

Heathcliffe is asked by Nelly (the housekeeper) to “come to the glass, and I’ll let you see what you could wish.” She is comparing him being more naturally handsome at this point to Edgar Linton.

“Do you mark those 2 lines between your eyes, and those thick brows, that instead of rising arched, sink in the middle and that couple of black fiends (eyes) who never open their windows boldly, but lurk glinting under them, like Devils spies?”

“Wish and learn to smooth away the surly wrinkles, to raise your lids frankly and change the fields to confident, innocent angels, and suspecting and doubting nothing, and always seeing fiends where they are not sure of foes. Don’t get the expression of a viscous cur (dog) that appears to know the kicks it gets are its desert, and yet hates all the world, as well as the kicker for what it suffers.”

Today we might note that “His forehead bore the brunt of continually being surly and angry – 2 parallel deep lines had already formed on his face even at his young age.”

This being the unwitting evidence that in body language it only takes two years to form a new line of your face with an expression regularly made.

 Easy ‘adds’ that could breathe different and new life into writing novels and screenplays.

“His nose twitched upwards like a rabbit, barely noticeable (unless you were quick). I’d begun to notice this more and more over time, and now saw it for what it was – squelched disgust. The very thought of me now disgusted him – a state that I was doubtful I could ever reverse.”

“He was either a part time Elvis impersonator, or he could no longer conceal his contempt when Jason walked into the room. That curl (be it only for a second), showed every single emotion running through Aaron’s mind. Every slight that he could not forgive his boss for, especially for undermining him in front of Rebecca today.” Curled lip – contempt.

 “I’d got used to used to his little’ tells’ by now. How arrogant of him to think I didn’t notice that every time I mentioned the gallery – he ‘huffed’. I’d come to resent bitterly that sharp breath in through his nose – which by the way was way too Roman! His body language betrayed his anger easily and predictably nowadays leaving me in no doubt that he felt I should have just remained a ‘housewife’.” Tells.

 “It couldn’t be more obvious that Jess liked Trevor too. If he’d been in any doubt before this moment surely now Trevor saw it for what it was? Could he really be that oblivious? I wanted to fly across the room and scream at him, “Dummy, what are you waiting for? Can’t you see how she looks at you? Everything is pointing in your direction from her toes to her eyes, which seem transfixed on you by the way. Say something. Do something! This is it, the spark, the moment when if you hold her gaze, she is yours.” Attraction – focus, 8.2 second eye contact.

 “Everything about him smacked of passivity – the low flop of his hands when gesturing seemed perfectly in sync with his people pleasing question. He struggled to make eye contact; his chin was down into his chest (omg, that chest!) How was anyone meant to get anything decent out of him?”

“How could a man who could literally take your breath away with those piercing green eyes, be so ‘invisible’ out in the world.”

“Everything within me told me to run, to look for my usual ‘go to’ – an Alpha male in a sharp suit, a big boy’s car with the right badge on the bonnet, and with a healthy side of ‘dick-ness’.”

 “As I looked around the event ‘those’ men where everywhere, posturing like Silver Backs to each other, open legs that women were meant to notice (without throwing up slightly in their own mouth).” Body clock – passive >assertive. Arrogance/narcissism.

 “I can’t believe it. Is he actually stressed right now? The almighty James. It was him who thought up this masterpiece after all, and us mere mortals that had to deliver on his bullshit and nonsense. This moment right here, right now, where he’s realised that we won’t pull it off in time is priceless to me.” Micro expressions.

“I’ve been watching him carefully all day as time wore on, the inevitability of his arrogance becoming more and more apparent. It started with simple wipes of his temples with his index finger, and over the course of the day went to a flat palm in the middle of his forehead (now glistening with sweat), and sweeping back his stupid hair that looks like it’s painted on.” Stress manipulator, fingers used, palms, deep stress trauma. Other manipulators.

 “How dare she dismiss me like that! Even without the hurtful words blurted from her vicious lips this time, the body language is unmistakable! That flick of her left hand – now commonplace when she’s had enough of me. Winding me up like a jewellery box ballerina with a flick of her fingers, because she is once again, bored of me dancing to her tune.” Wind up gestures and emblems.

Want to learn more?

There are two e-books in the online shop on body language basics and advanced for $13 each.