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How to Describe Body Language in Writing

The body can speak without uttering a word. In some real-life situations, body language is used to save lives or sign death penalties—i.e., a kidnapping victim can use facial expressions or hand gestures to signal to police or civilians that they’re in trouble.

In fiction writing, which is what we’ll be talking about in this post, body language has numerous uses, some of which the writer does not originally intend on when writing.

Body language is an effective non-verbal form of communication, and it adds depth and brings realism to a fictional story as the characters seem a little bit more alive when they use their bodies to communicate.

how to describe body language in writing

What Is Body Language?

Body language includes facial expressions, body posture, hand gestures, and other body cues that can be used to nonverbally communicate with other people.

These actions may be intentional or unplanned, but they have an impact on other people’s perceptions of us.

body languages
A man standing showing different body language. (Image credit: “Body Language 1” by vincelaconte on Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

Body Language is Important, this is Why

So, why use body language?

We indeed talk a lot when trying to communicate with others but people mostly communicate using body language (like more than half of the time). When we are writing fiction, we use dialogue to insert breaks into the narration and body language is another great way of doing that. With body language, the characters aren’t just speaking, but they’re also revealing their personalities to the reader.

That adds a lot of depth to your fiction writing; the reader is shown—not told—how the characters show their emotions, and the body language reveals the characters’ distinct mannerisms.

Show, Don’t Tell!

show, don't tell
A creative illustration of writing technique called ‘Show, Don’t Tell.” (Image credit: “Show, don’t tell” by Paul Downey on Flickr CC BY 2.0)

The sacred rule of fiction writing—you’re allowed to be fluid, exercise some anarchy, or be divergent, but you CAN’T break this rule.

That’s a NO-NO. A cardinal sin!

Even with body language, you don’t have to tell the reader what’s happening; you have to show it! You have to get the reader into the story’s environment and give the precise feelings of the characters.

Almost impossible, right?

If you think that’s impossible, then you shouldn’t be a writer (at least not a fiction writer). You can only add depth using body language if you let the characters own those body cues, not the narrator.

I’ve written some words and phrases for you in a later section, jump to this section to see what words can be used to incorporate body language in your writing.

How to Use Body Language in Your Writing

how to use body language in your writing

1. Facial expressions

The face is the first body part when we think about communication. Even in real life, facial expressions are easier to read than other types of gestures and body cues (maybe that’s why “clowns at a kids’ party” is usually a good idea).

You can use facial expressions to show sadism, astonishment, anger, and a lot of other things.

2. Gestures

I know a lot of people that talk with their hands and sometimes they use their hands to do things without uttering a word. Characters are fashioned after real people so your readers would understand if your characters spoke using hand gestures.

One example would be when a villain uses a finger gun to tell a character that they were going to get killed.

The thing with hand gestures is that they can be interpreted differently in different cultural contexts. For example, you could use the middle finger in a certain cultural space and it wouldn’t have some vulgar implication.

3. Posture

Posture refers to the way our bodies are fixed when sitting or standing. Posture can also be used to show how a character behaves as himself as his bodily stances.

You can use posture to show the reader whether your character likes to sprawl or sit with legs crossed, assume a drooping posture, or stand tall.

Posture can be used to tell your readers a lot about your characters. For example, Straight posture indicates that you are interested in a conversation.

You can use implications like that to show one character’s reaction to another character’s speech or a group discussion.

4. Tone

A person might be saying something and the tone or pitch of their voice might be saying a completely different thing. That’s how important a person’s tone of voice is.

For instance, if a talkative person says “I’m happy” or “I’m okay” in a very slow, low pitch,  they’re probably lying—they’re not okay and surely not happy.

You can change your characters’ tones to show the readers that the character’s mood has changed or that they’re hiding something.

5. Physical appearance

The way we look says a lot about us. Someone whose ‘house is in order’ is usually clean, clean-shaven, and looks smart. Bad times can be reflected in a character’s appearance.

Imagine seeing an ex-coworker, say an accountant, with a huge beard and in dirty clothes, would think that they are still employed?

No!

So you can use physical appearances to show your readers what kind of characters are in your story. You can also use physical appearance to twist the narrative and unravel some truths at the end of the story—like a homeless person turning out to be an undercover rich guy.

You can use tattoos, pants sagging, hairstyles, facial hair to paint a picture of your character.

6. Touch

Touch can be used to show a lot of emotions and actions. You can use gestures that relate to touch to show aggression, tenderness, or other actions.

There’s so much information that a single touch can convey.

A soft continuous caressing of a lover’s hand or other body parts might indicate affection and set the mood for romance in some instances, and a punch in the face shows aggression and sets the mood for a fight.

Tips for Using Body Language

tips for using body language

1. Use It to Strengthen Dialogue/Add Depth

 I’ve already said that we speak more with our body than our mouth—more nonverbally than verbally. So if you hugely rely on dialogue to demonstrate how your characters communicate, you’re making your story less realistic (Not that it’s a must that a story should follow real-life patterns).

Body language helps you give your characters more depth and sets up a relatable, interactive feel for the readers.

In my other posts, I’ve also said using the simple ‘he said, she said’ dialogue tags is always effective. But… It’s also good to show who is speaking instead of telling your readers, and you can use body language to show how the character spoke.

You need to have a realistic balance between dialogue and description in your fiction writing.

2. Use It to Show Rather Than Tell

You may feel like I’m overstressing this point because I said it at the beginning of the post and in the first part of this section.

But it’s the sacred rule, and once you break it, you’re no longer a good writer. Simple!

So, always observe this rule.

3. Don’t Overexploit Body Language

If you use body language unconscionably, you will realize diminishing returns. Too much body language will slow your story down.

Everything has to advance your story, so you don’t need body language if it’s retarding the story’s development. Body language should be added to add something to the story, not take something from it, although it’s okay if you intentionally use body language to slow down your story.

4. Use Body Language to Connect Your Character’s Emotions with Their Actions

If you want your characters to be as realistic as possible, you have to show your reader that the characters’ emotions, thoughts, and actions are linked.

Body language has to correlate with the way your character acts or reacts to situations and set the reader for the impending actions.

Body Language Words and Phrases

Here are some of the phrases and words you can use to describe body language in your writing. These are just a few but a lot of them, and you can also make your own phrases.

  • Arms akimbo
  • Bug-eyed
  • A vicious yank
  • Arm curled around his waist
  • Bit her lip
  • Fast, shallow breathing
  • Clenched his dirty little fists
  • A deadpan expression
  • A lackluster smile
  • A toothy smile
  • Crossed his arms over his chest
  • Palm to palm handshake
  • Gritted his teeth
  • Fists shaking
  • Darting eyes
  • Blood rushing to head
  • Laid her chin in her palm
  • Fingers spread like claws
  • Tensed muscles
  • He ducked
  • Eyes burned with hatred
  • Pursed her lips
  • Ambled away
  • He shivered
  • She cowered
  • Hunched over
  • Rubbing temples
  • She rubbed her forehead
  • Clenched jaw
  • Tall erect posture
  • Sketched a brief bow
  • He balled his fists
  • His body shook
  • She trembled
  • Swaggered into the hall
  • Blitzed into the room
  • Cocky wink
  • Eyes flashed
  • He stroked his beard
  • He scratched his nose
  • He scratched his head
  • He tapped his fingers on the table

Books On Writing Body Language

I don’t think you can master the art of writing body language by reading a couple of blog posts or by using tips from other authors. There are books that can help you learn and become good at writing body language.

Here are some of them:

1. The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression

The Emotion Thesaurus

2. The Writer’s A-Z of Body Language Paperback

The Writer's A-Z of Body Language

Final Words

Over the years, I have come to realize that to become a good writer, there are a lot of things that you have to learn and master. You don’t have to go to a special school, but you still have to learn aspects of writing that improve you as a writer.

Using body language to express emotions, reactions, and add depth is one such aspect that you have to master. If you separate yourself from the characters, it’s going to be harder to express or use body language. But if you put yourself into the character’s state of mind and try to behave like they would, figuring out how they’d use body language to react to things or communicate is going to be easy.

One thing you must do is let your characters speak, whether by acting out some scenes or using the personalities.

If you nail the body cues, your readers will instinctively understand the characters’ impressions and will be able to understand what’s going on without needing your narrations.

Easier shown than said.

About Jessica Majewski

Jessica started off as an avid book reader. After reading one too many romance novels (really... is it ever really enough?), she decided to jump to the other side and started writing her own stories.

She now shares what she has learned (the good and the not so good) here at When You Write, hoping she can inspire more up and coming wordsmiths to take the leap and share their own stories with the world.