Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Guest blogger Rayne Hall: Body Language in Dialogue Scenes

Body language can add another dimension to your dialogue scene, because it reveals a person's intentions, feelings or mood.

The five main types of body language are gesture, posture, movement, facial expression and tone of voice.

Gesture Examples

She pointed to the orchard. “I saw him there.”
He slammed his fist on the table. “I've had enough.”
She scratched her chin. “Are you sure this will work?”
Welcome.” He pointed to the couch. “Why don't you make yourself comfortable?”

Posture Examples

She raised her chin. “You can't make me do this.”
He locked his arms across his chest. “No way.”
She leant away from him. “This isn't working between us.”
I consider this an insult.” He stood with his shoulders squared and his legs braced. “Take it back.”

Movement Examples

Maybe another time.” He turned to leave.
She walked faster. “I told you I don't want a date.”
All right.” He shuffled forward.
Follow me!” She leaped across the brook.

Facial Expression Examples

Her eyes narrowed. “You expect me to believe this?”
His cheeks turned tomato-red. “What do you mean?”
I'm sorry.” She stared at the floor. “I didn't want it to be this way.”
The corners of his eyes crinkled, and his lips twitched. “Really?”

Tone of Voice Examples

We will stand together in this.” His voice was deep and resonant like a church bell.

I've told you a hundred times, and I'm telling you again.” Her voice sounded like a dentist's drill, high-pitched and persistent. “Why don't you ever listen?”

You know that I'm going to kill you, don't you?” He sounded as casual as if he were discussing the weather. “Do you prefer a shot in the heart, or the head?”

You've been with that floozy again, you cheating bastard!” Her voice was loud enough to wake up the whole neighborhood.

Body Language instead of Dialogue Tags

Using body language allows you to cut boring dialogue tags (he said, she asked, he answered) because it shows who's talking.

Tag versions:
What about the girl?” he asked.
Bastards!” she shouted. “I won't let you get away with this.”
What now?” he wondered aloud.

Body language versions:
He jerked his chin at her. “What about the girl?”
Bastards!” She slammed her fist on the table. “I won't let you get away with this.”
He scratched his head. “What now?”

Point of View

Most people aren't aware of their body language. Therefore, use body language for the character who is not the PoV.

If the body language is intentional, for example gestures, you can use it for PoV and non-PoV characters.

Lies and Secrets

Advanced writers can use body language to hint at secrets and lies. The characters' words say one thing, but their body language another.

Yes, tell me the rest of your life story, it's so exciting.” She glanced at her watch. “It's a pleasure to hear all about it.”
He hugged his arms around his chest. “I'm not frightened.”
His face paled. “That's all right, honey. It doesn't matter at all.”

If a character avoids eye-contact, this suggests that they're not telling the truth or are hiding a secret.

Don't wait with dinner for me tonight, darling. Arabella and I will have to work late again.” He did not meet Sue's eyes. “It's a bore, but the workload is getting heavier every day.”

Rayne Hall is an author and editor.
After writing and editing, her great love is teaching, and she teaches online classes for writers, which you can find out more about by visiting:
Follow her on Twitter: @Raynehall


  1. Great ideas, Rayne. I like the 5 types of body language. Just having that list of 5 above my computer can help when I'm looking for the right way to portray something. Thanks for sharing.

    1. I'm glad it's useful.
      I admit I'm using the list myself when I revise my dialogue scenes. The early drafts are always bland and with hackneyed body language, or no body language at all. During the revision, I go over it systematically.

  2. Great post, Rayne! I love body language and covered the subject in my family living classes, but when writing, I often forget. I'm going to pay closer attention.

    1. It's ok to forget body language in the first draft. You can always insert it later. :-)

  3. Interesting post, Rayne.
    I do it all the time in my fiction - use body language and facial expressions instead of the tags. It adds richness to the text. But I think it's important not to 'overdo' it. Sometimes, in fast dialog, even the tags aren't necessary. The words should speak for themselves, although, as a writer, I'm still learning that skill.

    1. I agree with you whole-heartedly. Tags are often not needed and slow down the story. I try when my characters (two people only) are having a conversation, two or even three bits of dialogue don't need tags. And if the voices are distinct to the character, it's even easier.
      But add a third or fourth character, and you have to add the tags. IMHO

    2. I think this applies to any writing technique: don't overdo it. The best technique, if overdone, becomes tedious. :-)

    3. Good point, Allison. Dialogue scenes with several characters require more tags than those with just two speakers.
      There's also the additional complication that if a dialogue scene has two characters of the same gender, you need to use the names in the tags, otherwise the reader still doesn't know who the 'she said' is. ;-)

  4. Good point, Allison! Sometimes we can get into a "no tags allowed" rut and, as Olga mentioned, either put in too many actions - with characters doing all sorts of ridiculous things just so we can remind the reader they're speaking - or put in too few, which makes it hard when lots of characters are speaking. Like you, I reserve the said's, asked's, etc., for scenes where the reader needs just a reminder. When those tags are all but eliminated everywhere else, they then add variety.

    All about the balance, and thank goodness for the "find" feature in Word!

    1. I agree. There are some bizarre "rules" out there about how many tags of what kind a writer may use then.
      ("No tags", "One tag for every five utterances", "No tag other than 'said'", "Any tag except 'said'" and so on.

      Personally, I think such rules are nonsense. Every author has a different style, and only the author can decide what's right for their story.

      As a general guideline, I recommend using tags when they add clarity or meaning, and deleting them when they don't. But I'd never set this as a rule.

      The 'find' feature is a blessing for writers, helping us to hunt down and kill extraneous 'said' as well as all the words overused by novice writers - look, turn, could, start to, begin to and so on.

      In the bad old days of typewriters, these small corrections required retyping the entire manuscript.

  5. Great post! I'm been trying to use more body language in my stories, but I find I keep relying on the same movements. The book, The Emotions Thesaurus is helping me out. You just gave me some great ideas. Thanks!

    1. The Emotion Thesaurus is on my Chrome bookmark bar and I click on it many times during a writing session. Bless Angela for her hard work on that one!

  6. The Emotion Thesaurus is a useful book. Years ago, I wishes there was such a resource available. I even thought about compiling it myself! I was glad wen someone else did. ;-)
    For body language ideas, it's perfect.