Get your bodies speaking for you

Showing not telling is all about describing something as your senses would perceive it directly, without a judgment attached:

  • Her fingers moved constantly in random, jerky patterns vs. she fidgeted nervously
  • His eyebrows rose up towards his hair vs. he looked surprised

We like to read stories where we are engaged in the creation process, where we envision what is happening rather than having it handed to us on a silver platter with all interpretation laid out for us.

In order to do this effectively, we need to be able to describe the important parts of movement, the key indicators of mood and thought.  We also need to use different descriptions or we and the reader will get bored with the one and only way we know how to show surprise.  (Those pesky raised eyebrows…but don’t forget that there are other things those lifted eyebrows can indicate, such as a question in the offing.)

A friend gave me a fabulous book, What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell.  It is a series of essays that explores the intersection of science and society, that answers such great questions as “what is the difference between choking and panicking?  Why are there dozens of varieties of mustard but only one variety of kechup?”

I read it in a weekend, gobbling up each essay and then starting on the next one before I could even catch my breath.  I highly recommend it.  It will get you thinking, in the best, most entertaining way possible.

In the title essay, I was reminded of this question of showing not telling, of how we get the setting and the characters to show their feelings for us rather than using those cheap, easy descriptive words.  And maybe some tools to make it a little easier.

The essay focused on how dogs interpret human body language and react accordingly.  A University dance instructor analyzed the movement of a ‘dog whisperer’ which led to the mention of the Laban Movement Analysis.  The abbreviated list of things they look at struck me as a start for writers to use to get at those motions that will lead the reader to the experience we want them to have.

“Movement experts…use…Laban Movement Analysis to make sense of movement, describing, for instance, how people shift their weight, or how fluid and symmetrical they are when they move, or what kind of effort it involves.  Is it direct or indirect – that is, what kind of attention does the movement convey?  Is it quick or slow?  Is it strong or light – that is, what is its intention?  Is it bound or free – that is, how much precision is involved?  If you want to emphasize a point, you might bring your hand down across your body in a single, smooth motion.  But how you make that motion greatly affects how your point will be interpreted by your audience.  Ideally, your hand would come down in an explosive, bound movement – that is, with accelerating force, ending abruptly and precisely – and your head and shoulders would descend simultaneously, so posture and gesture would be in harmony.  Suppose, though, that your head and shoulders moved upward as your hand came down, or your hand came down in a free, implosive manner – that is, with a kind of vague, decelerating force.  Nows your movement suggests that you re making a point on which we all agree, which is the opposite of your intention.”  (p. 136-7)

This is one example of how our body moves expresses our mood, our intention and underscores or undermines our words.

“[The dog whisperer] then leans forward for emphasis.  But as he does, he lowers his hands to waist level, and draws them towards his body, to counterbalance the intrusion of his posture.  And, when he leans backward again, the hands rise up, to fill the empty space.  It’s not the kind of thing you’d ever notice.  But, when it’s pointed out, its emotional meaning is unmistakable.  It is respectful and reassuring.  It communicates without being intrusive.” (p. 137)

As writers, we need to capture the essence of the movement, the specific items that will lead the reader to where we want them to go.

“His phrases are of mixed length…Some of them are long.  Some of them are very short.  Some of them are explosive phrases, loaded up in the beginning and then trailing off.  Some of them are impactive – building up, and then coming to a sense of impact at the end.  What they are is appropriate to the task.  That’s what I mean by versatile.”

Switch up your character’s movements.  Play with them as you would play with pacing.  Use their bodies to add to the scene, to give it greater depth, greater meaning that is there waiting for the reader to discover it and make their own judgment.

I love it when there are multiple layers to things.  Today’s layer cake includes a book recommendation, the reminder to always be open to finding inspiration in anything read or experienced, and some suggestions on how to look at and describe movement to show, not tell, what’s going on with your characters.

I hope you enjoy.

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5 responses to “Get your bodies speaking for you

  1. Beautiful post. Much of this would serve us well in our everyday interactions with those around us – both by making us more conscious of how we convey meaning through movement, and by raising our awareness of the meaning in others’ movements. Lovely. As someone raised in “hand-talking” culture, I have long been interested in this, very vital, form of expression. I find particularly interesting the 7%-38%-55% theory which says that we interpret communication at those levels for words-tone-body language. Stimulating stuff first thing on a Monday! 🙂

    • samantha herne

      I find nonverbal communication absolutely fascinating. I agree on the vital aspect. It’s so easy to forget how basic and important it is, with our constant focus on words (and how are we communicating all this? with words, inescapable! lol) Which hand-talking culture if I can ask? Glad you enjoyed 😀

  2. Oh, wow. Thanks for sharing this!

  3. Of course you can ask. 🙂

    Portuguese. I can teach you some choice words when I see you on Saturday, even some that are accompanied by gestures! 😛

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