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Transcript (by Rekka)
[Upbeat Ukulele Intro Music]
Rekka: This is We Make Books, a podcast about writing publishing and everything in between. Rekka is a published Science Fiction and Fantasy author, and Kaelyn is a professional genre fiction editor. Together, they'll tackle the things you never knew you never knew about getting a book from concept to finished product, with explanations, examples, and a lot of laughter. Get your moleskin notebook ready. It's time for We Make Books.
Rekka: So today's episode is, uh, from a listener request, but I put it in the same batch of listener requests where I didn't write down the names to credit people. So you know who you are. Thank you for the idea.
Kaelyn: If you were this listener, get us on Twitter and yell at us.
Rekka: We'll add it in the show notes posthumously. Well, hopefully not posthumously.
Kaelyn: I was gonna say, "What?!"
Rekka: Posthumous to the episode.
Kaelyn: All right.
Rekka: So today we are talking about writing body language.
Kaelyn: This is, I think one of the harder things to do.
Rekka: How to be hyper-aware of where you put your hands.
Kaelyn: I have, while editing books, actually acted it out and recorded myself.
Rekka: Okay. So you have mentioned on the podcast before that you act these out, but you never mentioned that there was footage.
Kaelyn: Oh, it's gone. Don't worry. No, it doesn't, it doesn't exist.
Rekka: It's never really gone, Kaelyn.
Kaelyn: You will not see it, um. Figuring out, you know, body language without slowing down the pace of, you know, the story or the dialogue is, is difficult. So, um, I'd recorded these and then kind of gone like, okay, well, what am I doing here? Does that match up with what I'm reading? So, yeah, it's, it's hard. It's I think one of the more challenging things to do.
Rekka: I don't always think about it that way. So the reason that my characters will scratch their neck or, you know, look around the room or, um, fiddle with pages on their desk is frequently because I want to avoid using a dialogue tag because I had too many or, um, or that she said, or whatever messes with the rhythm of my, of my paragraph. So for me, I use body language as a way to use the name of the character that is saying the words without saying "character said."
Kaelyn: Yeah. So let's, uh, let's backtrack here a little bit. Why you write body language and how it's useful. So obviously the why is because we kind of need to know what the characters are doing.
Rekka: Yep. That's helpful.
Kaelyn: Everyone isn't standing perfectly rod straight in a room, staring at each other and taking turns to talk. Body language is very helpful for conveying things that are happening with the characters without actually having to say what's happening. Cultures around the world... There are certain ways that people act there are certain things that they do that convey an emotion or a feeling, even just the situation that they're in. Something like a character wringing their hands is going to convey nervousness or maybe trying to piece their thoughts together. Body language is a non-verbal form of communication that you're giving the reader. You're trying to explain what they're thinking or what they're feeling without having to actually do it. This is a very "show me, don't tell me" tool for writing.
Rekka: And that is how I find it most useful. Not because I'm worried about choreographing the perfect movements of my character across the room, but because it helps break up the inner kinda monologues, it helps break up the exposition. It helps break up the dialogue. It's like, this is the thing that's happening here in this moment. As you say, grounds the reader where if I'm trying to choreograph something, it's going to be very, it's like might be a whole paragraph of the character's movement versus it's like just a sentence and then moving on.
Kaelyn: Yeah, exactly. So, um, what did, what do they say? Something like about half of human communication is nonverbal.
Rekka: They say that. Yeah.
Kaelyn: Um, granted in the age of the internet that may have, that may have changed a bit.
Rekka: Yeah. Half of human communication is now text-based more
Kaelyn: Than that. Probably body language, as Rekka said, um, it adds depth to dialogue. It does it doesn't make it. So you have a wall of Kaelyn said, let's look over there. Sure said Rekka, I'll follow you. Instead it's Rekka gave a thumbs up and followed after her. It also is very helpful to show characters' emotions. Somebody who is relaxed and having a good time with their friends is going to have very different body language than somebody who is getting ready to, you know, go fight a dragon. For the record. Nobody fight dragons. Dragons are meant to be pet and given snacks.
Kaelyn: Yeah, exactly. But that's where it can certainly get a little hard, I think is trying to figure out how the balance is between describing a character's body language and their actions and what they're doing versus keeping the pace of the story. There is no good answer to this.
Kaelyn: This is something that you're only going to come up with through trial and error. And to be clear, I'm not talking about blocking. Blocking is very different from body language. If you're writing a fight scene and there's a lot of stuff going on all at once and you have to figure out, you know, who's where and how far apart they are from each other. And who's, you know, been stabbed and is lying on the ground. And are they in a position where someone's going to trip over them? That's not body language. That's.
Kaelyn: Yeah. Action.
Rekka: I like to think of it as body language adds the context to the dialogue. It communicates what the character's reactions are to things or how they're trying to use their words to manipulate a situation.
Kaelyn: Yeah. And conversely, um, body language can be a giveaway, you know, especially if you have like a first person limited POV in your book and you write that, you know, somebody that the audience is already feelin' a little iffy about has like a sadistic smirk on their face. Well, that's a good, you know, give away that they're probably up to no good. So that's another thing about body language is it's also the perception of whoever the POV is at that point.
Rekka: Yeah. And how close you are to that POV character determines a lot of how much they notice. So for example, if you have a character that you want to be fooled by someone else for half the book, then they need to notice that they have a very charming lopsided smile, as opposed to a sadistic smirk.
Kaelyn: Yes. This is another thing that you can use with unreliable narrators. Everything is open to the interpretation of the POV character. Are they wringing their hands because their nervous or are they wringing their hands because soon their laser will destroy Metropolis? Body language... So, not only to help add richness and depth to the scenes, it can also be used to manipulate and move a story in a certain direction. To make the reader think what you want them to think. Because even though all of this is nonverbal communication and we as humans are, you know, just in our daily lives are pretty good at perceiving that sometimes we're not always great at perceiving it, or sometimes we want to take it exactly the wrong way, because we've already made up our minds about something it's helping to sort of build a character and round them out a bit. Something that I really enjoy about body language is when you see a character doing the same thing over and over again, to the point where they don't, the author doesn't need to explain that's something they do when they're nervous or that's something they do when they're planning. It kind of helps your reader latch onto that character and make them feel like they know them.
Rekka: Yeah. Or they sort of know what's going on anyway. Like, oh, you're doing that thing again that you always do when you lie.
Kaelyn: Having other characters in the story recognize the repeat body language of different characters also is, I think, a good way to sort of build the story and build the characters. So actually writing it: you know, how do you, how do you know when you need to, you know, throw some body language in there? Rekka, I know you like to defer to that rather than using—
Rekka: Dialogue tags. Yeah. I would rather have somebody grind their jaw. I'm hyper-aware of how will the sound read out loud, whether in a reading or as a narrated audio book. And the repetition of dialogue tags is something that kind of catches my ear a lot. So it's, it's something that I've got a bug about. So I will always try to use a descriptive action by the character who's speaking instead. And also I find it helps kind of move that scene's plot along as well. Now maybe "he said" would be two words, whereas, you know, "and then he dumped his coffee out in the sink and slammed the mug on the counter" is a lot more words, but it also, it connects it to that statement and keeps the whole thing moving forward. Like you feel like there's a tumble of real life action happening.
Kaelyn: Yeah. And it's also communicating something about that character. Not only are they clearly frustrated, but depending on the context of this, maybe they got frustrated very easily or for no reason.
Rekka: Maybe they just don't appreciate a cup of coffee.
Kaelyn: It's very possible. I hear those people are out there in the world.
Rekka: Yeah. They're around. That's why I use them. That's how I use them. And that's how I decide when to use them. Do you have editor advice?
Kaelyn: I would say that when you should use them at minimum is if things are changing, if characters are moving around, if the intensity of a situation is being escalated, if somebody has picked something up and put it down, you know, and we need to know if they're doing that just because they, you know, it wasn't what they were looking for. And then they put it down in a, you know, angry way. I think when there's things that are happening, that is when it's important to show body language. This isn't to say that you need to overload your writing with this. You don't need tons of adverbs. She tossed the book at him angrily.
Rekka: Right. And I think if you start falling on the adverbs and you're not really writing the body language. You are telling again.
Kaelyn: Yes, exactly. My kind of metric for when you need to include body language is sort of action-based and update based. Did somebody do something? And if so, how? Yeah. What is it conveying about them? It was not conveying anything about them. If it's just that they went to get a cup of coffee because they like coffee, then, you know, you don't need to say, "they happily skipped towards the coffee machine humming while they—" I don't know. Actually, I feel like that's how I would write Rekka getting a cup of coffee.
Rekka: Prolly not skipping. You already used an adverb in that sentence. So...
Kaelyn: I did.
Rekka: I would blend it with the dialogue. Like, "I'm going to need coffee. If we're going to continue talking about this" and then go to the coffee machine or grab the grinds from the canister or something like that. I agree with you. It should be relevant to what's going on, not just to replace dialogue tags. So if I find myself, like, I don't know what this character would be doing right here that I could use in place of a dialogue tag, then I'm probably overdoing it. And then I'll just use the damned dialogue tag.
Kaelyn: I think actions and updates are a good way to use body language. Your character's doing something or something is changing. So for instance, if there's a discussion going on and it's starting to get heated body language is going to be a good indicator there. Rekka leaned forward in her chair and leveled her days at Kaelyn. Yeah.
Rekka: And see no adverbs there. And I'm not saying Edwards are bad (and we'll probably do an episode on adverbs. I don't know... Eventually), but in this moment they're not serving the purpose that you're going for. You are trying to use that show-don't-tell to communicate what's going on and an adverb weakens your argument for all that. So when you say updates and changes and actions, sometimes adding a character action with body language, to a dialogue tag, I will suddenly realize that there's something else going on in the scene. And hopefully the other characters can participate in it too. So that by having them do their steps of whatever the process is, I can insert their attitude. Are they relaxed? Are they stressed? Are they terse? Are they unengaged? Is there a competition going on for somebody trying to do one thing while the other person is trying to get them to do something else? Like it can become a whole scene in itself that can communicate a lot about the characters. But yeah, if it's just like this person sitting in a chair and that person sitting in a chair, I don't want to have every paragraph, a character like scratches their nose, or, you know, crosses their legs or uncrossed their legs or anything like that.
Kaelyn: I call those AI movements, things that we build into these robots and stuff to make them appear a little bit more human. And I think in most scenarios in books, we don't really need those because well, you know, the characters, they may be human, maybe something else. But unless there's a reason, like for instance, you know, people are just sitting talking and you don't need to have them crossing and uncrossing their legs, scratching their nose unless it's serving something. Like, are they fidgeting? Is the fidgeting showing nervousness? Or is this just somebody, you know, such a hyper ball of energy, they can't sit still, right? The body language should serve an action. It shouldn't be there just to communicate that these are dynamic real people, like we would build into a robot that we're trying to convince the rest of the world is as human as the last one.
Rekka: Right. Which nobody believed in any way.
Kaelyn: No, every time they come up with a new one of those, I'm just kind of like, why are we doing this?
Kaelyn: So you can absolutely overuse body language. It doesn't need to happen, you know, every time somebody needs to show a function in which they're human. You don't need to tell us that they're constantly blinking, that they, you know, are clearing their throats. Unless again, they're clearing their throats to get attention or something. We don't need to hear about, you know, how their finger itches or— my finger riches right now, actually. So that's why I was thinking about that.
Rekka: Kaelyn, we don't need to hear about it.
Kaelyn: Exactly. No one needed to know that. But used correctly, body language is an excellent literary and storytelling device.
Rekka: I would also caution that you would want to make the movements natural and not stereotyped. When we started talking about body language, the first thing I imagined was Ursula, the sea witch, telling Ariel not to forget about body language.
Kaelyn: Never forget body language.
Rekka: Then shakes her hips percussively. You might fall into a trap of thinking all women will move in a slinky manner or run their perfectly manicured fingertips against their collarbone and speak in a hushed whisper kind of thing.
Kaelyn: If you want to see some good examples of how to not write body language, go on the subreddit "men writing women."
Rekka: Yeah. That about covers it.
Kaelyn: There's some gems in there.
Rekka: And you know, um, sometimes men writing men, there's, you know, there's a muscle flex at every possible opportunity. It's just something that's not going to serve your story, unless you're telling a very specific kind of story. In 2021, if you're telling that kind of story, I hope it's a commentary.
Kaelyn: Yeah. Commentary or meant to be so over the top that it's, it's humorous. In which case then yes, it is commentary.
Rekka: Right. Exactly.
Kaelyn: So just to kind of round out this discussion, this can be hard. It can be hard to not write the same action over and over again. And the reason for that is because as humans, we do the same thing over and over again. In the time that I've been recording this with Rekka, I must have crossed and uncrossed my legs about six times.
Rekka: Right. I see her touching her nose.
Kaelyn: Yes. Okay. Here's a good example. I'm having terrible allergy problems right now. My skin is just like, it's very itchy. So Rekka's been watching just, you know, scratch my cheeks and my eyebrows and my nose and my neck.
Rekka: Which doesn't make the itching go away by the way.
Kaelyn: It doesn't, no.
Rekka: So if you write your character doing this, have them like working themselves up into a frustrated frenzy of itchiness as they're trying to survive this job interview or whatever the scene is.
Kaelyn: Yeah. Because nobody needs to know about how my nose itches. Unfortunately, all of you do. And I'm sorry for that.
Rekka: But in a scene, if you're trying to make a character uncomfortable, allergies is a way to do it.
Kaelyn: Oh, definitely. Yes. That's a very good way to do it.
Rekka: But choosing which body language and knowing where to put it, you were starting to say like, it can be difficult. Um, and I think that's part of the trick is we are told that our characters need to be doing something in a scene. And then we start inventing movements and yes, if you use the same one over and over and over again, it can be repetitive, but you can also use it as a tell for that character, as we said earlier, or tick that shows that they're anxious. Same thing. That's still a tell.
Kaelyn: By the way, a very good literary device for hidden identities. That if you want somebody to go back and go, oh yes. Now I can see, you know, that's something that you see across, especially a lot of epic fantasies, you know, with like sprawling stories where—
Rekka: The princess was allergic to strawberries and this one character keeps avoiding the strawberry patch that they have to cross through.
Kaelyn: Yeah. Or, you know, something like that, but also just, um, you know, somebody who maybe has like a weird habit of like pulling on their, their ear. And then, you know, sometimes you see them doing it. And sometimes they don't and it turns out they were a twin all along. Or, um, characters that are two different characters encounter the same person, but don't identify them. But the reader can tell they're the same person because of body language or, you know, the way that they stand. This is something very commonly seen. Writers will use exactly the same sentence or the exact same words to describe what a character is doing because they want the reader to pick up on this is the same person.
Rekka: Yeah. And you have to also have some repetition in order for that reader to pick up on things at all. Like if you want it to stand out, you do need to repeat things. Sometimes not just word for word, but multiple times, because a reader might skim over that at that particular moment. And then you miss it. Now, like you can't be responsible for a reader with poor attention on your book. That's, you know, hopefully something that doesn't happen because your plot moves and your stakes are important to the reader, but you don't want to repeat something that you did 400 pages ago and assume that the reader is going to remember what you said in passing 400 pages ago.
Kaelyn: It's definitely a balancing act with that because, you know, conversely, you're also not responsible for, if you have hyper hyper aware readers, picking everything apart and going well, they said this person scratched their nose using their middle finger. And then somebody else also scratched their nose using the middle finger. And I know one of them is, you know, a 42 year-old woman then the other is a six year-old boy. But I think they're the same person secretly somehow. There's another far end that that could go to.
Kaelyn: Body languages. You know, it's really helpful in a lot of different capacities in writing. It can be used as a storytelling device. It can be used to, you know, help grow and develop characters. It can be used to set a scene. It's something that I think you get better at. I think it's something that you get good at in revisions. I think a lot of times, you know, after your first draft of your manuscript's completed, you're going to go through and see a lot of dialogue tags in there. She said. He answered. They, you know, screamed. I think that body language is something you refine on subsequent passes.
Rekka: I think that's fair, until it becomes natural. And then, you know, you'll just be refining it like you do the rest of your manuscript on your revision pass. But until you do feel comfortable doing it, you know, put it on a whiteboard somewhere as a thing that you are going to pay attention to as you go through.
Kaelyn: This is something that if you're struggling with, I would recommend, frankly, just Googling. There's a lot of helpful information about do's and don'ts of body language, um, suggestions of how to incorporate it without, you know, weighing down your writing and your reader. Things to avoid versus things that are a little more descriptive with maybe less words and how to properly navigate adverbs.
Rekka: So really you don't need this podcast at all.
New Speaker: No.
New Speaker: You just need us to show up every other week and tell you to Google it.
Kaelyn: But normally I don't like to say, just get out there and punch it into Google and find stuff because you never know what you're going to come across. This is an area where there's a lot of good, "write this, not this." Some of them are just like charts and lists. Essentially.
Rekka: The other thing you can do is read and pay attention to the books you're reading and how they're handling it. Especially a book where you're like, I don't remember any body language. You go back and read through the first chapter of that and I bet you'll find some.
Kaelyn: Yeah, definitely. One of my go-to suggestions is always, if you're having trouble with writing: read more. It really helps internalize certain things.
Rekka: Yeah. Go find somebody who's doing the thing that you like and see how they're doing it.
Kaelyn: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.
Rekka: And on your manuscript, you can take a highlighter and go through on your revision pass and highlight body language and see how frequently you're using it versus highlighting, in a different color, the exposition or the internal monologue or the narrator's omniscient voice versus what's happening in that moment. And I think you'll start to see some patterns. And if you're not sure if you're doing it well, that might be the place to start.
Kaelyn: If that sounds daunting, let me put it this way: It is. But editors and readers will absolutely notice these things. It's a subconscious thing that a lot of readers will do. It is a very conscious thing that a lot of editors will be looking for.
Rekka: And... You know, again, practice and do it on all your books, make it part of your process and eventually it will become more natural and it won't be as much work because you won't have to think about it as hard. You won't find your first draft completely devoid of action sentences when you've practiced adding them, they will start to happen in your draft.
Kaelyn: Yeah, exactly. I think that's a good little span about body language.
Rekka: Yeah. I mean, it doesn't have to be a long conversation to be a podcast episode.
Kaelyn: That's true.
Rekka: It doesn't have to be a long sentence about the movement that a character is making in order to be body language tag. But we do have a listener comment, uh, this time, uh, we actually had it the past few times, but we were doing interviews, and then the last time it was just the two of us, I just plum forgot. Cortneylyn says, I love listening to this podcast. It feels like I'm still being productive on my work in progress, even when I can't work on it. Like when I'm driving great voices, great hosts, and helpful writing slash publishing insights. So thank you, cortneylyn. I hope everyone agrees. If you do agree, please go join cortneylyn in leaving a comment and rating because that really helps our podcast be discovered by other people who might find the information useful. And we like that. We'd like to be discovered.
Kaelyn: We definitely do. Yes. Well, um, everyone, thank you so much for listening. You know, if you want to leave us a comment or a thought, or maybe you disagree with our assessment of body language, or maybe you want to describe what your body language is like as you've been listening to this.
Rekka: I'm not sure I want that, but we do welcome comments and questions at @WMBcast on Instagram and Twitter or on Patreon, you can find us under the same moniker. You can DM us on Twitter if you have a question you want to keep to yourself and we will anonymize it, or maybe unintentionally anonymize it if we forget to write down who said it, but, uh, we are always open to answering your questions in future episodes. And one of those future episodes will be coming in two weeks and we will talk to you then.