Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Art of the Tell

A politician on television answers a question from a news reporter and raises and lowers only his right shoulder in a shrug. His chin is raised and the corners of his mouth are down-turned. He repeatedly touches the underside of his nose and then lets his hand fall to his side, where he makes a slight waving gesture.

Someone well-schooled in the art of the tell, or the study of body language, would tell you that this politician is a big lying-liar. That one-sided shoulder shrug says loudly that he has absolutely no confidence in what he's just said. The raised chin and down-turned mouth scream embarrassment. And the nose touching and hand waving? Yep, you guessed it—he's telling a whopper and trying to hide it.

Reading someone's body language is great if you're a reporter, a lawyer, a cop, or a parent. But how does knowledge of body language help you as a writer? We're often told to show and not tell, and there's nothing more showy than writing about your characters' body language. Here's a few gestures to get you started:

  • Hand to forehead means shame
  • Breaking eye contact during a recollection and looking to the right is an indication of lying
  • Arms crossed over your chest means you're defensive and probably lying
  • There are no wrinkles at the corner the eyes if the smile is not genuine
  • Thrusting your chin out during a conversation means anger
  • Lifted brows and a curled upper lip are signs of contempt
  • Liars often make more eye contact. They need to see if their lies are believable
  • Arms resting on hips establishes dominance
  • Leaning away from someone during a conversation means disagreement or dislike for the other speaker
  • Leaning toward someone during a conversation means respect, agreement, and interest in the topic and/or speaker
  • If someone has their hands folded together and their thumbs are raised, it's a good indication of positive thoughts
  • Touching one's neck says emotional discomfort, doubt, or even insincerity

The next time you write a scene with two character speaking, remember to use some non-verbal communication and show your character's emotions, instead of telling your readers about them. I wouldn't, however, suggest using your new knowledge of body language during a fight with your significant other or parents. It might get you into more trouble.

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