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Words Lie, Body Language Doesn’t

Why is it that when you look at certain people, you think they’re pleasant or kind, or maybe even mean? Before they say a word, you make judgments about whether you want to saunter over and listen to their words.

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It’s their body language–the set of their mouth, their facial expressions, their gestures. Often, these are movements they aren’t aware of, but telegraph so much information to you, you make decisions about your interest in approaching them.

This is true with the characters in the books you write, too. If you write about characters, it can’t just be their actions and their dialogue. You have to show us when they frown at something that happens, when they peer into a crowd looking for a friend. How they use their hands–or don’t use them–as they speak. When they scratch their ear and look down or hug themselves when they’re upset. These are the parts that endear a character to the reader, make us worry about or for them, or cause us to fear them. Leave them out at your own peril.

Here are about fifty descriptors that cover the head area–eyes, mouth, neck, etc. As with all my descriptors–they are from the writing of others. Use them for inspiration, but nothing more (that’s what I do):

Voice

  • His voice trailed off; the conclusions was inescapable
  • Spoke in a hoarse whisper
  • Said with weary resignation
  • Hollow voice
  • Voice low and gravely
  • Voice thick with conviction, guilt, etc
  • She asked between bites of calamari
  • Voice cracked and raw
  • Speaking in quiet tones
  • Hadn’t realized she was holding her breath
  • Breathy explosion of words
  • Tone weary, but cheerful
  • Voice low, tone uncertain
  • Something like a sigh
  • Words were slurred and lisping
  • Mouth turned up a fraction of an inch
  • Spittle on his lips
  • His thin voice took on a pedantic tone
  • The babble of talk died at his entry. He blinked as his eyes adjusted.
  • No, yes, maybe, I don’t know—Shit! She yelped
  • I sense a but coming
  • Yes, she lied
  • “I don’t know” Again, too rapid
  • Breath came in ragged gasps
  • Anger crept into his voice
  • Bark out critical info in short sharp yelps
  • Tight-lipped
  • brow puckered
  • Raised his right eyebrow

Hands

  • hands shaking in a palsy of rage
  • Hands clamped tightly together, leaning forward, knuckles white
  • His hands crossed in front of him
  • That fast-wave women do
  • shook like the wings of a hummingbird fingers tightly intertwined
  • knuckle cracking
  • flapped a hand,
  • Folded his arms across his chest
  • Soft handshake
  • Firm, manly handshakes

Face
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  • Worry lines framed her mouth and tugged at her eyes
  • Forced a smile
  • muscles in his jaw bunched
  • her dead mother smiled across the gulf of time
  • Long face pensive and worried
  • Shook his head and turned back
  • His grimace that of a man who’s bitten into a moldy plum
  • Tears started again without sound or movement
  • Smile faded from his face
  • Tepid smile
  • Grit his teeth

Eyes

  • Vision narrowed to a pinprick
  • eyes locked on like magnets
  • studied her w/ a predator’s unwavering attention
  • blinked a couple of times
  • Squinted out into the audience
  • eyes narrowed to slits
  • Narrowed his eyes
  • eyes locked in a shared understanding
  • yellow rimmed eyes narrowing
  • eyes turned inward
  • peer sightlessly at a wall
  • Staring sightlessly into the darkness
  • Stared into the distance
  • Fixed expression
  • Looked at a place somewhere over his shoulder
  • Their eyes met, but he broke it off
  • meaningful eye contact
  • risked a peek
  • she screwed her eyes shut

Neck

  • skin on the back of his neck puckered
  • muscles at the back of her neck tightened
  • fluffed the hair at the back of her neck when she was thinking

Arms

  • elbows resting on his knees
  • locked arms

Walking

  • Recognized the swagger of a failed cop wanna be whose life had already peaked
  • Walked toward them with grim determination, her spine bent forward in a dowager’s hump
  • Strutted into the room as thought it was her favorite watering hole
  • Turned on his heel
  • Stepping lightly
  • Lumbered down the sidewalk
  • Walk with labored dignity
  • Shambling
  • Walked at her usual brisk pace, the swagger was gone, and her shoulders were slumped as though the night had beaten her down and stolen her confidence.

Sitting

  • He sat back in his chair, crossed  one leg over the other, and tapped his fingers together
  • Crouched by the fire
  • Sat slumped in the water, his reputation in ruins around him

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing TeachersCisco guest blogIMS tech expert, and a monthly contributor to Today’s Author. In her free time, she is the editor of a K-8 technology curriculumK-8 keyboard curriculumK-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum, and creator of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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14 thoughts on “Words Lie, Body Language Doesn’t

    • Every time a phrase in a novel builds a mental image for me, I write it down. Some of them are powerful. I don’t want to steal them, just analyze how the author came up with them. There are words like ‘slither’ that are hugely effective in the right place.

  1. I try to recall the physical sensation of events and then write body response into my stories. Sometimes I know I’ve done well, other times I’m just off the mark, floundering for accuracy. This article will help – thanks.

  2. Jacqui very helpful stuff, yet I have a boy who struggles to spot the signs that body language tell us, being on the spectrum he wishes he could read peoples minds because body language is hard for him. Just another take on it.

    • I know autistic children–and others–struggle with the social cues you and I take for granted. It might be useful for this boy to recognize the body language so he could decode it. I think that’s a difficult position to be in–to not recognize what people think they’re communicating.

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