the official website of
Bob Nailor

Body Language

A strange title, I know, especially for a writer. Actually, no it is not a strange concept for a writer. A well-versed author should be able to describe the character's actions and the —

s/he shrugged
is not using body language to its full potential. How about?
s/he gave a half shrug
s/he rolled one shoulder
s/he lifted one shoulder in a weak shrug
s/he heaved a sigh, shrugged, and offered a grimace

Notice with the examples that just a little more definition was able to expand the image projected from a simple shrug to something more.

My first introduction to body language was simple. If the person folded their arms in front of them, they were being hostile or not open to the suggestion. Truth be told, whenever the arm is held in front of the body, most times it is an indication of not wanting to interact or communicate. As I learned a little more about body language, I discovered a whole new way to develop my characters and allow them to express themselves. I bet you didn't know that when a man stands facing you with his hands held together in front of his manhood, it is a form of protection. You could be interpreted as being aggressive and need to back off.

If you want to study the art of body language, or see it in action, watch a silent movie. Think about this. Charlie Chaplin was excellent in relaying different emotions and actions without saying one word. Remember how he would jump up, his eyes wide, usually one hand going up into the air with a raised index finger? He had just had epiphany, a thought or solution. How often did he roll his eyes and give a shy glance when he was in love?

Perhaps the actions might have been a little over the top, but the reality of it was simple. Body language was being used to express on screen what the viewers were watching. Remember, these were the movies before the the "talkies" came into existence.

Even today we still are suckers for body language. If we look beyond the immediate visual candy, those actors and actresses who can emote the body language better, they are the ones we truly want to watch and they are the ones we remember.

By combining bodily actions with body language, your character will suddenly be more alive within the reader's imagination. And this is what you want.

Consider the action of a person scratching their head. Is this a case of indecision? Or does the person itch due to dandruff? Or, is the person concocting a lie? Part of the trick of body language is not only the action, but the environment. White flakes on the shoulders could indicate the itchiness is because of dandruff. Of course, a blank stare could signify a loss of thought or being unsure. Then again, darting eyes, or narrowing eyes could be telltale signs of being a liar.

Bryn Donovan { } created a "Master List of Gestures and Body Language" of which I will offer a smidgen:

• she folded her arms
• he crossed his arms over his chest
• she hugged herself
• he wrapped his arms around himself
• she rocked back and forth

• she spread her arms wide
• he held out his arms
• she held out her hand
• he extended a hand

• he shook his head
• she nodded
• he bobbed his head
• she tilted her head
• he cocked his head
• she inclined her head
• he jerked her head in the direction of…
• she turned her face away
• he looked away

By taking the above gestures and adding more body language, your character will have added depth.

  Click to add a comment - say something!


Elyse Salpeter
Great post - I tend to say "Kelsey was angry, or she was bored" and am always stressed upon to give body language to show her mood, rather than tell. Now her brows furrowed, she rolled her eyes - great post!
~ Reply to this comment ~

Scott Bury
I remember years ago, watching an interview with an old actor, who compared contemporary acting style to that of stage actors. On the stage, without the advantage of nigh-tech sound equipment, actors have to be conscious of projecting their expression to the back of the theatre. Hence, body language has to be clear. It's something that writers can learn from.

Great tips as always, Bob. Thanks!
~ Reply to this comment ~

Diane Rapp
An editor told me to give characters a repeated gesture that helped to define a visual image (and not let other characters use the same gesture). My mystery heroine wraps the hair of her ponytail around her finger as a nervous gesture. Funny, but my daughter does the same thing, so guess who I model the character after? I try to remember these quirky gestures by building a list of characters and adding scenes that describe them next to their name--including gestures. The body language can help define the characteristics.
~ Reply to this comment ~

Bob Nailor
I also do this - I have characters tugging their beards or tapping their index finger on their lips. I think it adds a touch of realism to the tale.
~ Reply to this comment ~

Charles Dougherty
Great advice, Bob. Body language is a can't miss way to convey a character's emotions and attitude.
~ Reply to this comment ~

Lisa Jey Davis
Great tip again Bob! Always important to challenge how we "tell" the story!
~ Reply to this comment ~

Nichole Hall
Body language is SO important! I don't know that I'm aware of my own as much as I pay attention to other peoples. However, in can really help paint the picture. Great post Bob!
~ Reply to this comment ~

James Prescott
Wow, so much great wisdom here, didn't know much of this. Great post.
~ Reply to this comment ~

I am always looking for new descriptions for body movement. Thanks Bob.
~ Reply to this comment ~