Using the Subtext of Body Language in Storytelling
Kinesics is the study of “body language”, which explores how movements and gestures project a person’s hidden thoughts. Blushing is an obvious reaction. But more subtle ones can be used. When body language contradicts verbal expression, tension, conflict and interesting scenarios increase. This is a great opportunity for writers.
According to Janet Lee Carey, author of Dragon’s Keep, body language:
- Shows the subtle undercurrent of communications between characters (of which either may not be consciously aware).
- Shows the comic or tragic elements behind the dialogue.
- Reveals the character’s true feelings (regardless of what he or she is saying).
In order to accomplish this, the writer must learn to accurately interpret the subtle signals of body language and translate them into the written form. One way is to look at yourself. Ask yourself: what do you do when you’re nervous? Excited? Thrilled? Sad? Angry? How do you do housework when you’re angry? When you’re happy? It helps to look at the same action under different moods to distill out the finer nuances of gesture and movement.
Pay attention to your own body, suggests Carey. “How do you sit? How do you move? How do you breathe?” Pay attention to your moods and what your body does then. For instance, what do you do with your hands when you’re nervous? How do you speak when you’re impatient? How do you cook when you’re happy? How about when you’re mad?
Emotions can be detected by other characters through these reactions: skin, breathing (swallowing), eyes, eyebrows, ears, lips, jaw, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, back, sexual organs, legs and feet. On the other hand, physical areas where a character may feel an emotion but not show it include pain in the body, skin, tongue, throat, heart, stomach, sexual organs, and pulse.
You can use body language imaginatively in several ways. Here are a few:
- Amplification and contradiction: use body movements and facial expressions to either enhance or contradict the verbal expression
- Reactions to invasion of personal space: show signs of restlessness, such as hunching of the shoulders, tucking in of the chin, backing up
- Masking: this is when a character defends personal spac by showing indifference or confidence while masking their true feelings (e.g., remember when Luke faced the Emperor in that last battle aboard the Deathstar? Despite his quiet show of confidence, he swallowed [his fear]).
Body language can either amplify or contradict what is said between two characters. The latter, of course, is usually more interesting, because it sets up tension and underlying conflict.
The following is an example of amplification:
“So, what happened?” Jenny asked, leaning forward and gazing directly at Mark.
Jenny’s body language matches her dialogue, amplifying her genuine concern. Here’s an example of contradiction:
“Hey, great to see you,” Dave said, crossing his arms and edging back to slouch against the wall.
Tom wandered to the fridge and opened it to look inside. “Can I have a beer?”
Dave fixed a hard smile at Tom. “Sure.”
It’s obvious that Dave isn’t happy to see Tom, and his body language contradicts what he said. This makes for compelling reading. Subtext (beneath the surface of dialogue) adds interest and intrigue, particularly when it contradicts or complicates the “overt” verbal message.