Monday, October 18, 2010

Body language: are there clichés?

Recently on the Absolute Write forum I encountered a really good question about body language. In the midst of discussion on another topic entirely one writer asked whether there were any "good gestures" or whether all gestures were "clichéd, like smiling and shrugging".

I'd never thought about it this way, even though I've discussed body language before (here and on other forums). Would a gesture be cliché? Or would it only be the way the gesture was handled in written form?

I'll start with the second question, and then go back to the first. Anything we write can turn out badly if we handle it wrong, and if an author chose to use the same gesture too many times in close succession, that could definitely look repetitive. It would be a problem, but a problem of the writing. There are possible "show don't tell" issues surrounding gestures as well. There might be times when a more detailed description of a character's body movements is more appropriate than simple use of the word "shrugged." If you're writing along and you come to a point where a person has to show discomfort in their body language, there are many ways you can choose to have them do it - scratching an ear, shuffling feet, looking away, etc. - so you can make a conscious choice to have that behavior fit the character's personality or the formality of the context. For example, at a formal dinner party, a person might simply look away from the person he/she is talking to without showing any other physical signs of discomfort. Making good choices in such contexts is part of creating a successful story. By all means, don't say "he furrowed his brow" every single time someone has to express disapproval.

What about the question of whether gestures themselves can be cliché? My immediate instinct is to say no, they can't. Mind you, they can be repetitive. Body language isn't verbal or grammatical, but it does have a "code." Some gestures are "fixed expressions," such as the shrug or the handshake. Other gestures have different interpretations depending on the context in which they appear - eye-widening can mean surprise, fear, amazement, or exasperation, and we have to look at how it is described and what is happening or being said around it in order to understand its meaning. It's interesting to consider that sometimes we have different words to differentiate between these contexts - for example, "glaring" for the exasperated eye-widening, and "staring" for at least two of the other contexts. Smiling is another physical cue that can mean joy, evil pleasure, or nervousness depending on where it appears.

Many gestural cues vary across cultures - something to keep an eye out for. In Japan people point to their own noses while saying "Me?" rather than their chests; they point with the whole hand and not with just one finger; they beckon with the palm facing down, not up. These are the kinds of things one can vary when dealing with fantasy societies or aliens, and one can even exploit misunderstandings in gesture for critical plot moments.

Body language is extremely useful to a writer. It can and should be used. Because I usually write in very tight points of view (first person or tight third person), I find body language very useful. I use emotional description or internalization for the point of view character, and descriptions of body language and facial expressions for other characters in the scene (along with the pov character's judgment of their meaning). Here's an example:

[Tagret] risked a glance and caught Fernar gaping in horror, Della's Yoral in what could only be called a valiant effort not to look - something. Amused, hopefully, rather than insulted.

This allows you to create a solid sensation of point of view and keep your characters differentiated (even when they aren't speaking!).

So if you feel at this point that you may have a shorter list of body language tools than you would like to have, I'll give you a short list of possible body language cue types and what they may be useful for. Of course, there's no way to cover everything!
  • The direction someone is facing - good for first impressions of a person's mood, where their attention is focused, and how safe they feel
  • Where a person is looking (making eye contact or looking at a particular object) - good for showing what a character is paying attention to, and how ready they are for conversation or confrontation.
  • Open or closed body posture - this shows mood and receptiveness. The more bunched up a person is, the more uncomfortable they appear (like my poor daughter at the dentist's yesterday!). A person can also close body to one side and open to another by crossing the legs and turning the shoulders, perhaps to show preference to one love interest over another.
  • Placement of the hands - this shows mood, anxiety level, and can also give information about character and personality depending on what the person is holding or what they are doing with their hands.
  • Height of the shoulders - another mood indicator
  • Ease of breathing - great to show fear, relief, relaxation, excitement, etc.
This is just a short list, as I said, to get you started. One great thing to do is go out with your anthropologist's glasses on, set yourself in a public place and watch how people move. Figure out what your instincts tell you about certain body postures. Then you can enrich your own list of body language cues and work on incorporating these into your writing. It's the best way I can think of to avoid the problem of a body language cliché.


  1. Juliette, what a wonderful way to inject movement and punctuate mood into the story. I am a firm believer in paying close attention to my characters and signaling to the reader what they feel without having to come out and tell them.

  2. Thanks Juliette, this is something I'm working on in a piece right now. I find myself repeating the same body language (sighing, shrugging) and have been struggling to frame it differently for each instance of emotion.

    And thanks for the reminder about different body language across cultures!

  3. Great post! My blog has a whole collection of entries on this topic. So much can be slown through body language and it is so important to think beyond those well-used gestures if possible.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  4. Sorry to be slow responding, folks! Thanks to Henya and Amanda and Angela and Pk... I appreciate your comments very much. Angela, I'll go check out your blog. Sounds interesting!

  5. hay your post is so important because it helps to know Body language .i also think that body language so important in the world.tank you for your post.