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Tips for body language and description. | Laura Pauling

Tips for body language and description.

In last week’s post about tips outside of story structure, a lot of you remarked about body language. Personally, I think how a writer uses body language especially through out dialogue can elevate a novel from amateur to reading like a published novel.

Of course, there will be lots of: said, asked, muttered, added, smiled – words that are invisible. And we want invisible words especially during scenes where we want the reader to focus on the words being spoken.

But we also don’t want talking heads. So weaving in body language through a stretch of dialogue is crucial. You could read craft books, but I think the best place to learn is the books you have on your shelf or your library.

And when it’s not dialogue, we use body language and description to show instead of tell.

Well-crafted body language

  • Uses specific word choice
  • creates a mental image
  • shows the emotion by extending the movement
  • conveys the undertones and subtext
  • reveals character – especially secondary characters.

So I pulled some books from the stacks by my bed. In the following examples, with the dialogue taken out, these characters are well defined. Who’s the mean girl? Who’s the dork? Who’s the laid back jock?


  • “dialogue” Celeste interrupted my daydream with a sharp finger snap in my face.
  • Celeste rolled her eyes, yet the clumps of mascara managed to stay put. “dialogue”
  • “dialogue” she glanced at Hayden, then pinned her eyes back on me.
  • Hayden’s laugh came out in staccatos tsk-tsks.
  • “dialogue” Hayden yawned. “dialogue”
  • “dialogue” Hayden stuck his hands into the pockets of his Bermuda shorts. “dialogue”


  • “Dialogue” Seth said between bites of his sandwich.
  • Seth leaned against the gray metal filing cabinet, lost his footing and almost fell on the floor. Once he recovered, he reached into his blazer pocket to pull out a plastic bag containing a crustless PB&J….”dialogue”


I bristle, skin contracting, quivering like the plucked bow of a violin. My wings start to vibrate with hot emotion, shooting lancing pain through the injured membrane and deep into my back. I wince, forcing myself to relax.

(And just think. The author could’ve just said something like, “My legs shook as pain shot through my back. I breathed deep and tried to relax.”

Standing, I fold my wings close to my body and run, darting wildly through the crowd of trees as the engines grow louder. (nice extension of run)

Challenge: Go through some of your favorite books and spend time picking out the body language used during dialogue. Then pick one of your own scenes, pinpoint the emotion behind the dialogue and create body language unique to each character and their emotional experience.  #don’tgooverboard

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39 Responses to Tips for body language and description.

  1. Andrea May 11, 2011 at 10:24 am #

    As part of my revision process (after the big stuff like plot) I checked through my novel for exactly this sort of thing. It’s really important to strike a balance and not go overboard with it though.

  2. anne gallagher May 11, 2011 at 10:34 am #

    I had to laugh when I read the first excerpt from Firelight. I counted 4 -ing words. And what do “they” tell us about -ing words.

    So there’s a rule I’m going to start breaking again.

    And I love body language descriptors. I know there are very few dialogue tags in my last book. (my crit partner was a scourge) It’s almost all body language. I love it.

    • Laura May 11, 2011 at 11:04 am #

      Anne – No surprise that Sophie Jordan – author of Firelight – was a romance author. It comes across in her descriptions. 🙂 Of course, not all books need to be like that. That’s just her style. But the point of strong words is there.

      Andrea – I’ll be going through my wip too for this. 🙂

  3. Ansha Kotyk May 11, 2011 at 11:44 am #

    Laura, this is a great exercise! Something I should definitely try out. I love going through my favorite books and finding ‘how they do it’.

  4. christine danek May 11, 2011 at 11:57 am #

    I saw Anne’s comment. I was about to say the same thing. Too funny. I love writing body language. I usually write the dialogue first then fill this in after.
    Oh and I’m so breaking that -ing rule.

  5. christine danek May 11, 2011 at 11:58 am #

    I hit submit before I finished.

    I was going to say, it’s all about balance for those -ing words.

  6. Donna K. Weaver May 11, 2011 at 12:04 pm #

    Gotta love those dialogue beats. =D

  7. Stina Lindenblatt May 11, 2011 at 12:11 pm #

    I love this idea. I already use them, but this will help spark new, fresher ideas. 😀

  8. terri tiffany May 11, 2011 at 12:13 pm #

    You gave some great descriptions!

  9. Creepy Query Girl May 11, 2011 at 12:35 pm #

    oh yes. In my first draft I use a lot of the same action/dialogue make ups to give an idea of how the characters are standing/sitting/looking along with their words. Most of them get cut or changed to something more original during revisions though.

  10. Marisa May 11, 2011 at 12:36 pm #

    Excellent post, Laura!! I find this to be the hardest part of writing. Well, one of the hardest parts…. I always end up with too much or too little. That balance is such a challenge!

  11. Karen Lange May 11, 2011 at 12:36 pm #

    Love this, Laura! I agree, I depend on the books I read (the good ones, anyway) for inspiration in this area. Thanks for the examples.

    • Laura May 11, 2011 at 12:45 pm #

      Thanks everyone! I think creating unique dialogue beats is tough. It takes hard work and rewriting until you get it right.

  12. Susan Kaye Quinn May 11, 2011 at 12:46 pm #

    Fantastic examples! These descriptions are so evocative, they really pull you in. Having something that strong, that keeps you in the story rather than jerking you out with an overly long or oddly constructed phrase, is mastery in writing. 🙂

    p.s. and so hard to do!

  13. Rachel May 11, 2011 at 12:51 pm #

    Love this post! You used great examples 🙂 retweeting now . . .

    Happy Writing!

  14. Sherrie Petersen May 11, 2011 at 12:51 pm #

    This is actually my favorite part when I’m writing. I noticed yesterday how little I use said or any other tags because I tend to have action with the dialogue instead. Love the Firelight descriptions.

  15. Traci Kenworth May 11, 2011 at 12:52 pm #

    I need to do more of this in my own writing.

  16. Kelly Polark May 11, 2011 at 12:55 pm #

    Excellent, Laura. Great examples!

  17. Angela Felsted May 11, 2011 at 1:08 pm #

    Sophie Jordan is a pro at description, isn’t she?

    I still remember how she used “palms kissing” in one scene, and I just about melted to a puddle on the floor with how beautifully she put it.

  18. Lydia K May 11, 2011 at 1:09 pm #

    Good thoughts, and great examples. My problem is sometimes I describe every little movement, and it gets too muddy.

    • Laura May 11, 2011 at 1:28 pm #

      Isn’t amazing how great writers make it look so easy? I’m sure there’s a lot of hard work behind, along with some natural talent!

  19. Laura Josephsen May 11, 2011 at 1:39 pm #

    These are great examples. Body language is so important, but as with much in writing, there’s a balance. A lot of my characters have certain physical quirks–things that I don’t plan, but that become part of the character as I write. One character has a tendency to rub his neck, one has a tendency to fiddle with things when nervous or scared, stuff like that. But especially in those instances, I have to be careful not to overdo it, or all it will be is distracting and annoying.

    Thanks for sharing!

  20. Kip May 11, 2011 at 1:42 pm #

    Oooh, great post. These are things we all have to think of. I especially love the Firelight example. Wow!

  21. Faith Hough May 11, 2011 at 2:45 pm #

    Great post and wonderful examples! I read a great book, directed towards business people probably, but super useful, called “The Power of Body Language.” It “decodes” many common actions, and it does really help to keep these subtleties in mind while creating a scene.

  22. kris May 11, 2011 at 2:52 pm #

    Great stuff. I always need to go back and look at body language. I think I removed about a dozen instances of winking at one point. By different characters. 😉

  23. Laura Marcella May 11, 2011 at 3:54 pm #

    Great examples! Body language is something that’s not often talked about in writing craft books. It’s definitely something to look into, though. Thanks for the tips!

  24. Annie Neugebauer May 11, 2011 at 7:58 pm #

    Great post, Laura! I particularly liked, “But we also don’t want talking heads.” I kind of do, but that’s because I’m a horror writer and the idea sounds cool… =)~ But in all seriousness, this is a very original topic.

  25. Tana Adams May 12, 2011 at 12:14 am #

    I love adding this during my scenes. I’m always afraid I’m going overboard.

  26. Kristin Gray May 12, 2011 at 12:17 am #

    Good food for thought and excellent examples on making them unique. Thanks!

  27. Leslie Rose May 12, 2011 at 2:15 am #

    Fab examples, Laura. I think it’s time to dust off ye olde theatre training and inject some physicality into my WIP peeps. Thanks for the launch.

    • Laura May 12, 2011 at 2:32 am #

      Just so you all know – this is exactly what I’m working on in my manuscripts. I’ve seen a huge difference between truly excellent writing and writing with a little bit of lackluster – and one of those difference is in the body language in dialogue and description that shows the emotion behind a person’s words or action. And it’s not easy to do. My brain bleeds a little bit every time. And sometimes it turns out terrible! That’s what CPs are for!

  28. Dawn Simon May 12, 2011 at 3:45 am #

    I really like this post, Laura. I spend lots of time thinking about/working on body language in my writing. That said, I find it quite challenging to keep it sounding fresh and natural. When it’s done well (as in your examples), it seems so effortless.

  29. Lisa Green May 12, 2011 at 3:15 pm #

    Looks like I’m fashionably late to the party. See? I even bring adverbs with me! Ahem. I think this is a valuable post. I’m starting to wonder if maybe I go overboard sometimes with this in my new WIP. Revision will tell. But it works so well with world building as well! Body language as to how the characters interact with the world around them. Props as it were (I’m always thinking theater).

  30. Julie Musil May 12, 2011 at 3:19 pm #

    Laura, these are such excellent examples. I sure to try to add this type of body language, but I’m not sure how successful I am! I wrote a magazine article for children about body language, and the research was fascinating.

  31. M.P. McDonald May 12, 2011 at 5:18 pm #

    I love adding body language to my dialogue, but I tend to go overboard and have to watch that. Sometimes my characters are moving so much, they seem to have ants in their pants. 😉

  32. LynNerd May 12, 2011 at 11:48 pm #

    What an excellent post, Laura, and great comments from everyone. I seem to always be stuck using the same body language in my ms, so I try to pay attention to the different body language descriptions in what I’m reading, and you’re right about how it makes great literature stand out from the rest. And it’s not easy to do at all. Being aware of it while revising is a big help, though, in improving the quality of our work.

    • Laura May 13, 2011 at 1:33 am #

      It is extremely hard. That’s why I love finding great examples. And I love seeing how different artists approach it. Thanks everyone!

  33. Shannon O'Donnell May 14, 2011 at 8:52 pm #

    This is fantastic, Laura! 🙂

  34. Ghenet May 15, 2011 at 11:37 pm #

    This is something I need to work on when I revise my WIP. I love your examples! 🙂

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