On Body Language

by RS on March 30, 2011

I’ve been obsessed with my characters’ body language. They smile, frown, chew their lips, blush, roll their eyes, glance, look from the corner of their eyes, purse their lips, curl their lips up in a smile, wrinkle their nose, eyes crinkle in a smile, flash smiles, chuckle, sigh, sigh in frustration, sigh with desire, sigh in exasperation, shout, mutter, mumble, rest their elbows on their thighs, on the table; hold their head in the hands in despair, stare…oh you get the picture, don’t you?

It’s all cliché, cliché, cliché! And that has been on the Internet Writing Workshop’s Writing List’s sujet du semaine. A lot of back and forth about expressions that have turned into clichés like “wag the dog” or “mountain out of a molehill” or “the shit hitting the fan.” My favorite one is “going to hell in a hand basket ” because it just hits the nail on its head. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

Back to body language…I’ve given myself the assignment to go through Julius and look at all the beats, tags, and cues that mention some form of physical movement, and choose language that is more dramatic and that better conveys the character’s mood, tone, and the scene’s setting. No easy task, but it has to be done.

To facilitate this project, I was fortunate to have stumbled upon Margie Lawson’s website and blog, thanks to fellow IWWer and friend, Carol Kean, and saw that Margie had an online class, “Writing Body Language and Dialogue Cues Like a Psychologist.” Unfortunately, no information of how to sign up or the cost. However, you can purchase and download the two week lecture and try your hand with the exercises she provides.

Although I downloaded this last night and skimmed the first lecture, I see that I have a lot of work ahead of me. Margie provides a sample and then breaks it down in an analysis of the setting, the mood, the character’s personality. Here’s an example she provided in a guest blog post on Routines for Writers:

Writers need to consider the EMOTIONAL SET of their characters, the SETTING, and the SITUATION.  Those three dynamics impact the SPEED, TONE, QUALITY, VOLUME, and PITCH of dialogue.

Let’s check out how authors capture Dialogue Cues on the page.

Here are some DIALOGUE CUES from HARLAN COBEN’s 2009 release, LONG LOST.  For this section – I selected dialogue cues that all speak to TONE.

1.  I expected Jack to give an “awww, Mom,” but maybe he heard something in her tone too.

2.  I had thought about the strange tone in his voice, near panic.

3.  “Must be divine,” Win said in a voice richly marinated in sarcasm.

“Oh, it’s nothing special,”  Paintball said, not picking up on Win’s tone.

4.  I was about to crack wise—something like “tell all your friends” or “sigh, another satisfied customer”—but something in her tone made me pull up.  Something in her tone overwhelmed me and made me ache. I squeezed her hand and stayed silent and then I watched her walk away.

QUICK ANALYSIS:  Note the Stimulus and Response pattern above.

5.  I made eye contact with the man I’d fought with in Paris. I kept my tone even, controlled.

 

Moving onto:

Looks and Gazes and Glances and Facial Expressions

C.J. Box, THREE WEEKS TO SAY GOOD-BYE

1.  Garrett looked at me blankly. Something in his eyes disturbed me.  It was as if he saw me as someone who couldn’t possibly understand him, and I was not worth an explanation.

QUICK ANALYSIS:  Fresh and amplified interpretation of a look.

2.  Then he smiled outright, and something danced behind his eyes.  I felt a chill roll down my back.

QUICK ANALYSIS:  Stimulus/Response

3.  And I caught the “See?  What did I tell you?” look Garrett gave Luis after she was gone.

4.  He locked eyes with me, and I felt a chill that made the hair on my arms rise.

QUICK ANALYSIS:  Stimulus/Response

5. On the sidewalk, he paused, and I caught up with him.  I’d never seen him so furious.  The skin of his face was pulled back, slitting his eyes and making his mouth a snarl.

Brad Meltzer, THE BOOK OF LIES

1.  On my left my father stares at Ellis, then Timothy, then back at Ellis.

Then he looks at me.

I see desperation every day. For the homeless, it overrides despair, depression, even    fear.  But when my dad’s wide eyes beg for help . . . I’ve seen that look before—all those years ago when the cops came and they arrested him.

QUICK ANALYSIS:  Using an amplified internalization about a look – to slip in backstory.  Powerful.

2.  To be honest, I thought my dad was bullshitting when he said he didn’t know what was in the truck, but from the confusion on his face, this is news to him.

3.  Most people turn away when you ask them a hard question. Serena continues to look straight at me, and her yellow blue eyes . . . I hate to say it . . . there’s a real depth to her stare.

4.  She looks at me in silence for what seems like a full minute.

5.  “And stop giving me that my-boy’s-become-a-man-look!”

Now to critical readers and writers the samples Lawson provides might raise a skeptical eyebrow, but it certainly is better than my rolled eyes, countless sighs, staring into space and whatnot. I am anticipating that this will be a challenge and hard work, but I am prepared to put in the time and make Julius even stronger.

 

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