Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Body Language (as opposed to baudy - or maybe not!)

Last week at a workshop for my day job I had the chance to see a short dvd of a presentation by Jan Hargrave, a body language expert in the US who is involved, among other things, in jury selection. She spoke on a few of the gestures a manager should be aware of when conducting an interview so that they understand both the messages they are sending, consciously or otherwise, and the ones they're seeing from their staff. Just what those clues are, and what they mean, is a whole 'nother subject that's way beyond me to tackle here (or elsewhere, for that matter). I did pick up some interesting pointers though, and since we recently touched on this subject in one of our meetings I watched with more than the usual interest.

The concept of subliminal communication through body gestures is familiar, I expect, to most of us. In the dvd Ms Hargrave explained that research indicates only 7% of our communication is in the actual words we use; 38% is in the tone, while the majority, 55%, is in the body language. I don't remember the source of the research, so I can't vouch for it's scientific validity, but whether the percentages are "accurate" or not, I doubt anyone would argue the basic concept. The workshop discussed in-person communication scenarios but I've concluded that it's equally important for us as writers to keep this research in mind when crafting our stories since that's what we're writing about (and I do mean crafting, i.e. during the edit stage -- I certainly don't recommend trying to write the first draft with this in mind).

Dialogue, of course, is the words, the 7% our characters speak, and sometimes tone can come across just in the choice of those words in a particular situation, but where that's not the case it's up to us to set the tone through our description, and then remember to add the other 55%, i.e. what the body's doing. Okay, that makes sense, but I know that I won't be doing that with every sentence of dialogue--it would be overkill. So how will I know if I've got the right mix? I don't think the 7-38-55 ratio applies to a story; in fact, it might be almost the reverse in terms of the written word. I think the key, though, is to visualize what I've written, after I've written it, and just as I've written it, to guage whether my characters are communicating on all three levels and whether I've described those communications so the reader can hear the tone and see the body gestures and stance. And so that what they hear in the tone and see in the body gives them that 93% of the meaning.

For example, if I have Eve waiting for Adam for almost an hour, when he shows up I'd better make sure her tone indicates anger/fear/relief/whatever, and her body is backing that up no matter what words come out of her mouth. Or, maybe not. Maybe I want to play with it a little. Maybe Eve doesn't want him to know what she's really feeling, and I'll have to decide if her body is going to give her away no matter how she regulates her tone. Or maybe I'll have to determine if she's been to one of Ms Hargrave's workshops, or studied the subject and is knowledgeable enough to manage that as well as her tone in order to mask her feelings. Either way, as the storyteller I have to be conscious of how she's communicating with her body, and make sure I give the reader those clues, polite or otherwise.


Hayley E. Lavik said...

This is a great topic, Molli, and a really concise way of applying it to fiction writing. I think it's really important to realize the messages we convey with our movements, and how much they influence how we communicate. Plus, describing physical movement can sometimes be a lot easier than trying to explain something by describing the tone.

For some great references on concrete gestures and movements, and what they mean, I'd definitely recommend The Definitive Book of Body Language. It's the only one I've found that goes beyond mere business significance (although it is angled towards business to some extent).

Making use of body language also helps people avoid falling into traps such as eye drama, trying to convey complex and vague emotions in the unrealistic glint of an eyeball. Seeing the anger in someone's eyes may not mean much, but a clenched jaw and a balled fist make the image clear. I've heard body language is best read in clusters (three cues convey the whole package).

As you say, though, this is definitely not something you want to get hung up on in the first draft. I'm shifting to emphasize body language more when I write now, but I end up going to the same handful of reactions over and over again. That can all be tidied up in revisions.

Captain Hook said...

Awesome post, Molli! I can't say that I've ever thought about body language when I write.

More work!

Helena said...

Your topic is very timely, Molli, as I am grappling with some intensely emotional scenes on my way to completing my first draft. So far it is reading like a screenplay (but without many stage directions). Well, at least the dialogue is moving the story along. Body language will have to be layered in when I get to revise, which I am getting more and more anxious to do.

I'm glad Hayley mentioned the eyes -- I know they can only convey so much, but I always seem to think of them first when the range of emotions can be reflected so much more effectively by using the entire body.

I also seem compelled to mention roaming or striding around the room to indicate restlessness or anxiety, even anger. Perhaps this is too general, and the kind of body language you are talking about is more intense and specific. Again, the rigid jaw or the clenched fist that Hayley mentioned would be examples.

Thank you for bringing this info to our attention. Very useful stuff.

Karyn Good said...

I'm not so bad with eyes but my characters frequently gasp, inhale, take deep breaths, little breaths, and suck air in all kinds of ways. I need to come up with alternative body language to get my point across.

Hayley's book recommendation sounds interesting so will check that out.

Great post Molli. I'll keep your post in mind as I continue my rewrite.

Ban said...

GREAT post Molli and great book Hayley, I'd go into more detail but we have already discussed how we concur on this subject. Body language plays a BIG part in my Wip, in fact one character even points out 'what is meant is often more than what is said'. To make things even more difficult - there are four different races in my story; this makes for an interesting clash in body language 'signals' - as my MC/h soon learns. A gesture that indicates anger in one culture may not mirror the same emotion in another ...

Jana Richards said...

Hi Molli,
Great topic. I like to play with body language in my writing. I especially like to have my character say one thing, and then have their words totally contradicted by their body language. I'd love to have more ways of describing body language so I'm interested in checking out the book Hayley mentioned as well.

Have you ever seen the TV show "Lie to Me"? It's about a group of psychologists (I think) who are experts in determining when someone is lying. The thing I find interesting is when they use news footage from real life to point out the subtle body language a person uses when he's lying. Fascinating stuff.


Silver James said...

Great topic, Molli! I'm working on this right now - describing a smirk instead of just saying, "He smirked." for example. I'm also working on showing the tenor of the dialogue by the actions rather than using tags. For instance:

"I see." Her upper teeth worried her bottom lip, nibbling and pulling.


"I see," she said nervously.

Not to mention that adverbs are bad. LOL

Printing this one out and adding it to my stack of "Keep This Advice"! Thanks, Molli.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Excellent post, Molli.

Hayley, thanks for the book info.

I use a lot of body language in my writing yet I still have the eyes flashing in anger. :)

Jana - yup, we watch 'Lie to Me' strictly for the research, of course. :)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Karen, I really like that you're emphasizing breath to show mood with your characters, since it can be overlooked sometimes. Too much, of course, is never good (like my smirks), but it's a nice variation on the usual! All my characters clench and/or tighten right now, so I'm needing more creativity there.

Silver, I'm trying to do the same thing, figuring out creative ways to describe smirks. It's tough because the one word just sums it up perfectly in my opinion, and doing anything else feels like describing a small portable object with buttons and a screen, instead of saying 'cell phone', you know? A creative, challenge, for sure. Avoiding dialogue tags also made me really focus on body language. I've often thought a collection of substitutions would be good (ie: different body cues for each said-ism)

For those SRW ladies coming to the spring retreat, I'll haul my reference books along with me if anyone wants to borrow the body language book for the weekend.

Janet said...

Great post, Molli. I'm an eye and breath overuser (there, I've admitted to the problem, I'm halfway to recovery). Body language is something I love to 'watch' when I'm in a restaurant or mall - I need to remember to transfer that to my writing.

Molli said...

Hi all. Sorry to be late in checking in today -- the day job got in the way.

Hayley, it was your book recommendation I was thinking of as I watched the dvd, but I couldn't find my notes when I was doing the post so thank you much for putting the title out there for everyone. The cluster approach is new to me, too, so I have something else to add to the edit consideration list.

Ban, interesting you should mention the issue of gestures meaning different things in different races. I've heard of some interesting experiences with that from people who've travelled overseas to different cultures -- that thumbs up may mean something entirely unexpected!

Jana, Anita, I've never seen "Lie to Me". What channel carries it? I'd like to catch it sometime. Is it fact or fact-based fiction? Do you pick up ideas that help when you want your character to be a bit "contrary" Jana? Or am I hearing something of a "tongue in cheek" "tone" in Anita's reference (she said, chuckling)?

Silver, that's exactly the kind of thing I had in mind as I watched the expert's dvd. It seems to me that one of keys will be to find the right balance between tags and body language description.

Helena and Karen, you seem to be right in the thick of the edit process so it will be interesting to hear what you find as you consider the body language elements. You, too, Captain Hook. My guess is you do it without thinking about it.

And Janet, I'd love to be sitting beside you to hear the commentary on one of research sessions. Might do myself some damage smothering the laughs, but it would be worth it.

Anita Mae Draper said...

That'd be great, Hayley. I'm not sure yet if I'm going, but if I am, I'd sure like a peek at the Definitive Body Language book. :)

connie said...

Hi Molli
Great blog - good advice.
I need to bear it in mind. On thinking about it, the most obvious I have used in the wip is the 'cut direct'. (not called that of course. We're talking 1400s here)
Walking is a body language action not always done well. e.g. in Mary Balogh books, it doesn't jar . Lynn Kurland's books jar! A medieval woman 'stomps' across the Hall - she 'strides' across the room even though the reader knows it is a very small room. She'd be lucky to get two strides in which doesn't convey anything. Stomping across the hall makes me picture her wearing rubber boots - for whatever reason. We have to watch out for little slips too. If she put on slippers in a previous scene, she won't be able to stomp worth a damn.