Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Can you 'see' the body language?

Fair warning: the next few posts are going to be long because I'm using large chunks of text for examples. Reminder: they are all first-draft, so are subject to change.

You’ve already seen part of the scene I’m going to use today, so first I’m going to show you how I could have written it, but without touching a word of the dialogue, or changing what happens:

Kell stops at the door of my workroom and looks around at the mess.“You weren’t kidding.”
“No,” I reply.
She walks in, and I shut the door.
“Where do I sit?” Kell asks.
I pick up the stool and put it by the window, where there’s good light.
She touches the seat. “Retro,” she says sarcastically.
I’m embarrassed, and a little angry.“It’s... it was my grandmother’s piano stool.”
“Ah, that’s why it’s so short,” she says, and sits down.
I put a big newsprint sketchbook on the easel and start drawing with charcoal.
Kell is beautiful. She’s got dark, Middle-Eastern skin and almond shaped green eyes. She’s wearing lots of eyeliner and mascara. It’s hard to draw the texture of her pink dreadlocks, which are growing out, so there are dark roots.
It’s hard to draw her body because she’s wearing a baggy hoodie.
Since she’s here, and I don’t know if I’ll have another chance, I draw a dozen sketches as fast as I can.

Now, here is how I actually wrote it, I hope the bolded bits aren’t too distracting.

Kell pauses at the doorway, one hand lingering on the frame. Only her eyes move, sharp, careful, absorbing everything.
Finally, she steps across the threshold. “You weren’t kidding.”
“No.” The word doesn’t come out as firm as I wanted it to. Maybe because I was holding my breath.
She glides through the mess, the stacks of oil pallets, the boxes full of smaller boxes, full of unmixed paint, oil, plaster, and turpentine. She doesn’t hesitate, she doesn’t shy away from the precariously balanced piles, she turns and moves with confidence, like in the couple seconds she looked over the room, she memorized the placement of every bolt of fallen canvas and protruding frame.
It’s not logical, but she does it. I pull the door closed, gently.
“Where do I sit?”
I fumble forward, bang my knee, stub a toe, but I get to the canvas. I heft the green three-legged stool over my head so I can maneuver it over to the window without knocking anything over. The afternoon light is still good, enough to sketch by, anyway.
She runs one finger over the seat. “Retro.”
My face gets hot. “It’s... it was my grandmother’s piano stool.”
“Ah. That’s why it’s so short.”
She doesn’t sit, she doesn’t flop, she alights. That’s it. That’s the movement I want to capture. That effortless grace she can’t hide with ripped Ed Hardy hoodies and faded pink dreadlocks. But I’m not Pollock, I don’t paint movement, I want light. Her light.
I pull the canvas from my easel and prop a large two-foot-by-three-foot newsprint sketchbook in its place. The old mug with charcoal is on my left, and I grab a piece without my eyes leaving Kell. I don’t want to waste a moment of looking at her.
She sits still, but awkwardly. Her hands squished between her knees, palms pressed together inside the sleeves of her butterfly print hoodie, shoulders drawn inward. Her chin is up, eyes bright and defiant, an odd juxtaposition with her closed-up body language. She’s not looking at me, but at the door. She’s motionless, but you can almost see the desire to move slowly building up inside.
The light on her skin is deep amber, the same color as the flecks in her green irises, and the shadowed areas rich coffee with cream. The lines of her eyes are exotic, almond shaped, though it might be the heavy black makeup that’s making a connection in my brain to Egyptian kole. 
Almond, maybe that’s actually the color of the flecks in her eyes, not amber. More red in the mix than yellow. No, too much red. Hard to tell in this light. Later, next time, I’ll get closer.
Her roots are espresso black, the hot-pink dye faded to the flush ripeness of a wilting peony. There are no highlights or shadows. Light gets tangled in her dreadlocks, Escher-maze knots of intertwining color and light. A Japanese woodblock print of a tatami mat, Van Gogh’s haystacks, an entire season of fields in Schaefer’s ‘Ontario Farmhouse’. Repetition of pattern, but not uniform. Not consistent. How to bring out the texture with minimal detail, to not lose the blurred light?
Hoodie, always in a damn hoodie, or long sleeved layered shirts. 
Hard to see, can’t get the shape of her body lines. Subtle curves, no straight lines. Breasts? There, small. Fits with the lithe muscle and low BMI.
Ten, no, maybe twelve pages already. Hands work fast, breath shallow. The familiar ache of desperation to sketch quickly, to capture everything before she moves.
A memory flits through my head, sketching robins on the grass. Pause, hop, then the whip-quick dive of their beak into the lawn to snatch a worm. Pause, wings flip out, legs bend, and an instant later, in flight.
One second to note and render the pose, maybe two. Fast, work faster to catch it before it’s gone.

I'm not going to bother with description, I mostly pulled out the words/phrases that imply state of mind, things that aren’t being said, but are important. You’re going to see this scene again in the next post, which will focus on description.

Kell, if you notice, constantly pauses/holds still, then moves quickly, but confidently. She doesn’t speak much, but from the way she moves, it should be clear that she thinks her options through before making a decision, and then acts on it without hesitation. She commits. She is not afraid, or self-doubting. Even though she’s a guest, even though this is her first time in Jay’s house, even though she is the model (passive) to his artist (active), she is the one in control, both of herself, and of the situation. She can get up and leave anytime she wants, and Jay is acutely aware of that fact, even though it’s never stated.

The robin description at the end builds on Jay’s impression of her, which is why he is moving/acting the way he is. Look at the words I bolded.

Is it obvious enough, how afraid he is that she’s going to leave? She has all the power in this scene. He’s scrambling to gather crumbs as quickly as he can, and getting frustrated. You may have noticed that I deliberately changed the rhythm of the writing as Jay starts sketching, hopefully illustrating how, as he starts to concentrate, he’s shutting everything unnecessary out... yet, that’s when I bring out the robin. Why? Because his fear is subconscious, and ingrained/interwoven with his painting.

When we are overwhelmed, we often concentrate on things that seem silly/unimportant, because we need to focus on something that we have control over, or that we could have control over. The difference between ‘risk’ and ‘uncertainty’.

I also repeat ‘ideas/impressions’, without reusing the same words. I remember in university, a professor told me, if you say something once, nine out of ten people will forget what you said. Say it twice, and maybe four or five will remember it. Say it three times, and nearly everyone will remember.

The trick is, how to say something three times without it being obvious that you’re doing so. 

This is especially noticeable with body language. I know I actually count how many times characters shrug or roll their eyes.

How many times, in how many ways did I ‘show’ that Kell is thinking about leaving, or that she isn’t keen on the idea of staying? The primary vehicle I used was her body language, but if you notice, half of it was directly what she was doing/not doing, but the other half was how Jay was responding to her body language, without being consciously aware of it.

The story is in his voice. He’s the one overlapping the image of a wild bird onto Kell. He's 'choosing' the words to describe how he sees her.

One further note on body language... 99% of the time, people are unaware of their own body language, unless they are doing it deliberately. Like, smiling to put someone at ease, or when they catch themselves doing something, like a nervous tick. We notice other people’s body language, and our brain registers it, but most of the time, we don’t consciously think about what it implies.

I deliberately inserted how Jay notices that Kell moves easily/confidently through the room, then in the very next paragraph, he fumbles/stumbles... in his own space, which he should be intimately familiar with. He notices his own clumsiness, but doesn’t think about ‘why’.

Just like he notices he was holding his breath, but doesn't think about it any further, then immediately closes the door gently/quietly when she finally does go into the room.

What implications can you glean from that? About Jay, and about Kell?

Since our brains are used to picking up on body language, but normally we don’t analyze/process it consciously, it’s a great way to subtly get across a character’s emotional state without telling the reader, “she is comfortable/confident”, or “he is anxious”.

BUT, when a character is always thinking/noticing their own body language, it comes across as manipulative.

Like, the example of smiling to put someone else at ease. They could be smiling because they notice the other person is nervous, or they could be doing it so the other person will drop their guard and they can take advantage of them.

Think about the body language you use... what does your character notice about the people around him/her, and how much? Does he/she ever jump to the wrong conclusion based on what he/she sees? Also, what of his/her own body language? When is he/she actively aware of what he/she is showing, and why?

Depending on a character’s background, they might be more inclined to pay attention to some kinds of body language, like kids who grew up in abusive homes, or with parents who are/were addicts, are highly skilled at recognizing the subtle signs of oncoming violence, anger, etc.

Someone who knows martial arts, or other athletic skills, will recognize, and make judgements, about people simply on how they stand or move, similarly to how, someone who is very into fashion, will make snap judgements based on whether someone is wearing ill-fitting clothes, or someone who has struggled with their weight will be sensitive to other character’s BMI, what they are eating, etc.

Jay only consciously notices the physical, what he would recreate on his canvas, but he unconsciously notices much more, and is reacting to it without realizing.

So, what is important to your character, and how could that figure into what they directly notice, and what they instinctively react to?


  1. I love the examples, the second excerpt definitely set a better tone and helped me to see the characters.

    1. Thanks :)

      ...though I think there were a few places I preferred the "trimmed" version ;)


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