As 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
We’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.
Example 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.