Let’s Get Physical 1: Showing, not telling, with body language

It’s a scientific fact that a large proportion of human communication is non-verbal: body language and tone of voice, rather than the actual words spoken. And yet, for the most part, body language features very little, or doesn’t figure at all, in many of our first novel drafts. Why? Part of the reason, I believe, is because non-verbal communication is second nature to us – so much so that we don’t really notice it most of the time. We read other people’s body language quite expertly often without consciously recognizing or acknowledging that we are doing so.

MB900389154The fact is that bodily actions often speak louder than mere words. If someone turns their back on us or shakes their fist at us, we don’t really need to be told where we stand with them – the body language says it all. And it is exactly the same for your characters.

More importantly, body language can often show us the sub-text to the words being spoken: describe a character with a false smile and cold eyes speaking gushing words of welcome to your protagonist – immediately the reader understands there is something else going on in this scene – it’s clear the first character is only pretending to be welcoming – but why? The reader will read on to find out the answer to that question. Expressing character emotions through their body language is perfect ‘show, not tell’, and can set up a hook for your reader all in one go!

So, how do you get physical in your writing? Well, you could use a cheat sheet detailing handy physical shortcuts to show character emotions (yes, they do exist), but Book Nanny doesn’t recommend this. They may be useful to remind you as an author to look at body language, but, remember: if you find it easy to use the cheat sheets, so will hundreds of other writers. And the result will be hundreds, if not thousands, of characters throwing their heads back and clapping their hands in amusement, crinkling their noses in disgust or shrinking back in fear, and so on. Therein lies the smoothly-paved path to a thousand clichés, and none of us should kid ourselves that readers won’t pick up on this – they will!

MB900441386The fact is, if you are looking to make your characters unique, you won’t achieve this by having them behave in the same way as thousands of other characters. In addition, you run the risk of scuppering your prose with lazy repetitions.

Instead, use the two most valuable tools you possess as a writer: imagination and observation.

Imagine whatever emotion you want to describe; call it up in your mind; monitor how your own body reacts and note it down. Observe other people – you can always ask friends and family to help you out. How do they react physically to different emotions? How is their reaction different to yours? Then ask yourself how does your character react –  the same as you or differently? That way you get a physical reaction unique to your character.

Individual, well-observed character tics and body language say far more to a reader than stock-in-trade reactions, and a character who doesn’t react as expected is often more intriguing than one who does.

But what if your character is the sort of person who does clap their hands when amused? How do you beat the cliché? Simple: detail! Look for the angle which will also put the spotlight on the character’s uniqueness, rather than focussing solely on the emotion:

‘Oooh,’ she squeaked, clapping her small, childlike hands in amusement.

Oh, and please remember that less is often more with body language.

MH900390992Give enough detail to get the message across, but don’t overdo it: you don’t want your character to read as though they are having enough physical reactions to bring on a heart attack every time they experience an emotion (you know, the heart-thumping, sweaty-palms, legs-turning-to jelly, gasping-for-breath sort of thing).

Apart from anything else, this can stray into the unintentionally comical. So keep it short, succinct and unique as much as possible.

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Building Narrative Tension 4: The Eleventh Hour

Continuing our analysis of the sequence of scenes from our Building Narrative Tension 3 post, in this post, we will focus on how combining the tension-building elements discussed in the previous posts with objectives and obstacles and links to the theme of your book can help ensure readers stay fully engaged and turning the pages.

Here are two possibilities for the next Simon POV scene:

SCENARIO 1: Late afternoon: Simon bumps into an old friend from out of town who asks him to go for drink. Simon considers it, but changes his mind at the last minute. He wants to be home on time to get ready for the family event. He smiles wryly. Julia always said he was a creature of habit, and he’s proving her right. But this is the last time: from now on things will be different.

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SCENARIO 2: Late afternoon: Simon is stuck in traffic, but deviates from his normal routine and takes a short cut up a one-way street. He’s pleased with himself – this is the new him – being bad for a change and not the boring old codger Julia thinks he is. He’ll be home in plenty of time.

Both scenarios (going for a drink and the traffic jam) present an obstacle to Julia’s plans and tantalise the reader with the possibility of Simon escaping her murderous clutches, so both equal there. And in each case Simon decides that getting home on time is his priority, so, again, we’re level. In both cases, we learn more about Simon’s character, which, as explained in Building Narrative Tension 1 is the ‘added value’ bonus that comes with fulfilling readers’ expectations, but if we focus specifically on what Simon decides to do in each scene and why, will that make a difference?

Objectives, Character and Theme 

Let us assume that the themes of our story are love dying, and a yearning for freedom and redemption.

MH900414074Scenario 1 offers Simon the opportunity to do something spontaneous, and thereby possibly save his life. True to form, he chooses not to go for a drink. and thereby possibly save his life.

In Scenario 2 Simon grabs the opportunity to begin the process of change; to experience a moment of freedom, unfettered by authority or Julia’s opinion of him. Unbeknownst to him, he plays right into Julia’s hands, because she is banking on his being home exactly on time as usual.

In Scenario 1, Simon is a victim of his own fundamental inability to change, despite his hopes for a new beginning in Antarctica. His decision is based on a negative: he declines to do something rather than taking positive action, as he does in Scenario 2, to achieve his objective to get home on time.

Scenario 2 has more impact in terms of action, and, in showing that Simon can change, it opens up the possibility of redemption, unlike Scenario 1, which appears to firmly close that off.

MB900303675aTherein lies the crux of the matter: if we close off any chance of redemption for Simon, we’ve already consigned him to his fate at this point in the narrative. Essentially, he can do no more to save himself and any reprieve will have to come from Julia. But how likely is that, given that it is Julia’s determined and controlling nature that is causing Simon to flee to Antarctica? So, if a reprieve from Julia can only be achieved by her acting ‘out of character‘ (which screams plot contrivance), then from a reader’s point of view, any attempt to build up further suspense from here simply gets in the way of the story. Essentially, we might as well cut to the chase and get to the murder showdown.

Which might work if we didn’t have redemption as one of our themes.

Therefore, faced with a choice between two equally workable scenes, ask yourself the question, which one best fits (all) the themes of the book?

In the present case, it’s Scenario 2. And as an added bonus we also get the painful irony that Simon’s attempts to change become pivotal events leading to his possible destruction.

Moving swiftly along (and yes, time will now begin to speed up as we hurtle towards the climax of our sequence), let’s get back to Julia, who has managed to withstand the psychological pressure of the phone call with her daughter, Poppy, in Building Narrative Tension 3. This is her ‘eleventh hour’, and we put one more obstacle in her way: a memory of the days when she and Simon were a new beginning and love was not dying or already dead.

SO01677_aEarly evening: Julia sits in the kitchen, gleaming butcher’s knife beside her on the table in readiness. A picture on the wall of her and Simon in happier days causes her a nanosecond of hesitation. Or regret? Perhaps Simon will surprise her this time. Perhaps he won’t come home at all, or he’ll be late; or he will come home and do something extraordinary? As the clock in the hallway chimes 6 o’clock, Julia holds her breath …

Does Julia kill Simon? Or does the success of his trip up the one-way street inspire Simon to be a changed man on his arrival home and do whatever ‘extraordinary’ thing Julia is hoping for from him? Or will Poppy, disturbed by her earlier call with her mother, turn up early for the party and on time to save Simon?

For the purposes of this exercise, suffice it to say, the journey to this point is more important than the actual ending. Along the way we have looked at how to structure our sequence from the original sketchy outline so that each scene builds on the previous one and works on a number of different plot, character and thematic levels to increase reader anticipation and engagement in the narrative.

And, for that, reason, I’ll leave the decision as to poor Simon’s fate up to you, dear readers. What do you think happens next? Oooh, the suspense!