Have you ever read a story you wrote and feel like it’s missing something?
It’s probably got something to do with that age-old writing advice: “Show, don’t tell.”
But why does “telling” fall flat? The part of the brain where we process words is not the same part of the brain where we process emotions. Sure, you know what “grief” means, but when you read the word it doesn’t make you feel grief, does it?
There is a part of the brain that translates visuals into emotions. It’s called mirror neurons. We are all born with these special neurons. It’s why babies get distressed when their parents are also upset – they may not know what’s happening, but they can, and will, mirror what their parents are feeling simply through observing their subtle body language.
It’s why you feel sad when you see your partner sad, and why you feel joy when your friends are happy. It’s why emotions are contagious.
It’s also why, most of the time, a picture elicits a greater emotional response than do words. You don’t need a great painter to produce a picture that mirror neurons could latch on to, but you do need a great writer who can do the same.
So why don’t we all paint with words?
It’s simple: it rarely occurs to most writers to study body language. They don’t know what to show in their writing.
A common symptom of this is when you include only the facial expressions of your characters to convey emotions. But what was happening to the character’s body? Did she slump (depressed)? Was she playing with her hair (interest)? Was she sitting on her hands (guilt)?
Of course, the field of body language is a complex one: It would take an entire book to explain everything researchers know about it.
But I hope sharing a framework to make it easier might hook you in into this interesting world. Here goes.
Identify The Emotion
Begin by identifying what your character feels in the scene. And be specific about it.
Is he angry, pissed, annoyed, furious or raging? These are all the same emotion, but on a different level. Certain words also convey context. For example, “provoked” is just another word for angry, but it implies someone else’s involvement. The same is true with “impassioned”, “bitter” or “cranky”.
If you’re not sure what the right word for your character’s emotion, use a thesaurus. It’s crucial you get this right because the word you use to describe the emotion will determine your character’s behaviour.
Give It Context
Animals express their emotions freely, but humans have a filter that manages our behaviour. We might scream when we are furious at home, but simply take a deep breath in a public space.
Plus, all body languages must be read within context. Taking a deep breath after a conversation might mean that person is trying to keep calm – but it’s normal activity if he/she is meditating.
So determine where your character is when she feels that emotion. Who is she with? Why does she feel the way she feels? Sometimes even her broader circumstances might play a role in her current emotions.
Here is an example. Let’s say Sue is furious.
- Where is she? At home.
- Who is she with? Her 4 sons.
- Why does she feel the she feels? Because her 4 sons just wouldn’t shut up.
- How do her broader circumstances affect how she feels? She was exhausted after a 15-hour shift and her sons wouldn’t give her a break.
Translate Emotion Into Action
Once you determined the emotions and the context, now you can ask yourself what would your character actually do?
The way Sue behaved above would be very different if say, she came home to find her boyfriend cheated on her. Or, if her mother keep yapping about moving on with her life.
This is where your research into body language comes into play. The more you know how humans behave in certain conditions, the more impact your story will make. What you are looking for in your research, is something “obvious” yet profound.
For example: self-preening. We all know it’s insulting when people do that while you are talking to them, yet few of us have thought about it consciously. Or sitting back, interlacing your hands behind your head and crossing your legs. We know only people in power would do it (interviewer vs interviewee) but again, few of us give it any thought.
And remember, no details are too small when you interpret an emotion to behaviour. Sometimes it’s the small details that matter the most.
Last, also take into account what behaviour is unique to your character. Perhaps she snaps her fingers when she’s impatient. Does she make wild hand gestures when she’s nervous? Or perhaps she blinks too much when she’s guilty.
Every time you come to include an emotion in your story, follow these 3 steps to portray it through body language. After a while you probably won’t even realise you’re doing it.
Please share your thoughts in the comments below!