How body language works in a story

by JoslynChase, September 7, 2020 in Reading, Storytelling

Thumbs upAs a reader, you pick up on all sorts of tiny cues that add to, or detract from, the story. When a book pulls you in, grabbing your attention, compelling you to turn the pages, many elements are orchestrating to achieve that effect.

When a book fails to capture your interest, some of those elements are either missing or out of sync. There are a lot of moving parts working behind the scenes, mostly on a subconscious level for both reader and writer.

One of those parts is body language.

Louder than the written word

The body language of high school footballWe’ve all heard it—actions speak louder than words—and we all feel the truth of that. So much of what we understand through our interpersonal communications comes from the physical cues we see and interpret subconsciously. The body language.

Things like facial expression, eye contact, the way we move our hands or feet, the little “tells” and mannerisms we unknowingly display, telegraph signals to those on the receiving end of our messages.

Nonverbal behavior has a lot to say—in real life and in the stories we read.

Body language in terms of story

A storyteller has to sift through all the things she could put in the story and focus on the things she should put in the story. Therefore, everything on the page exists on a need-to-know basis—the reader needs that information to follow the story correctly.

So when body language appears in a story, it should function as more than just “stage business,” giving the character something to do. As readers, we balance what the character says against what the character does.

The case for congruence

If the two are congruent, the verbal impression is reinforced.

Steadman's Blind front coverExample from Steadman’s Blind, Joslyn Chase

“Tell me what happened, Nan,” he prompted. “When, where, and—if possible—who.”

A wash of color came into her face, and he was relieved to see there was still some spirit left in her.

“Oh, I know who well enough,” she said, her voice shot through with acid.“They made no effort to disguise themselves.”

“Did you tell the police?”

She pressed her lips together, blanching them white. Her nostrils flared as she drew a breath through her nose. “I did not.”

The case for non-congruence

If the character’s actions don’t match the words he speaks, the reader picks up on that inconsistency.

Example from Adalet, Joslyn Chase

“If feels like you don’t really care what I think, like you’re hiding something and it worries me.”

“Well, stop worrying. Why does it matter where I got the money? Maybe I took it out of the trust fund.”

“Did you, Paul?”

His gaze flicked away, and then back, and his eyes locked on mine with a rock-hard glint, a slight twitch working at the corner of his mouth.

“Yes, I did.”

Power and significance

Whether in real life or in the pages of a book, nonverbals are powerful and they carry meaning. We interpret them on a mostly subconscious level, but they tell us a lot.

In the words of Ursula, the sea witch from Disney’s The Little Mermaid: “Never underestimate the power of body language.”

How about you? Do you find the notion of body language an interesting topic? Do you enjoy TV shows like The Mentalist or Lie To Me? Tell us about it in the comments.


6 Responses to “How body language works in a story”

  1. A twitch can say so much more than a couple of sentences.

  2. Yumna Mahmood says:

    Hi!
    Well, yes!
    Stories, though are manifestations of real life but to give it a touch of reality, body language is important.
    As a reader, I have an image of every character in the book. And whenever that character does anything in the story, in my mind a man or woman shows up doing that, something we call imagination. Through hints given by author about a character includes his/her appearance and the body language too. Appearance is important as what he looks like, and body language is important how he does.
    And yes, it is an interesting topic.

    • JoslynChase says:

      Hello, Yumna! I’m glad you enjoyed the article and I like that you have such an active reader’s imagination. Thanks so much for your response.

  3. In my crit groups, this is one of the most common bits of feedback I get. “What does she feel? What is her attitude right there? What’s she doing with her body, her posture? What’s her expression?”
    Going back and adding these in makes for a much better story.
    Thanks for the article!

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