Jilly: Show And Tell

Show And Tell

Typical feminine pacifying behavior

We’ve been all about the physical this week at 8LW.  Michaeline posted yesterday about writers’ wellbeing, and Kat, Elizabeth and Justine have been discussing the key ingredients of a great sex scene: there’s a lot more to it than describing docking body parts. Conversely, depicting physical interaction is a challenge that extends way beyond the bedroom or back seat, and that’s my subject today: the majority of human communication is non-verbal, and capturing these exchanges well is a key aspect of building credible characters.

In class we talked about telling our stories through bodies in motion; a character’s actions are the reader’s most reliable guide to their true self. Actions are fun to read, too: one of my favorite scenes of all time is near the beginning of Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub, when the heroine employs reason and logic to no avail, and in extremis demonstrates her mettle by shooting the hero. Mary’s desperate action establishes her true character beyond doubt, and Vidal’s attitude towards her changes immediately as a result. It’s funny and moving and wonderful.

I thought I’d learned this lesson, but it seems not entirely. I think I’m OK at using action to drive the plot, but recently I received feedback pointing out that my characters’ responses aren’t always as convincing or powerful as they should be, because I fail to describe the physical manifestations of their emotions. I double-checked and damn, it was true.

Clearly this is something I have to do better, so I decided research was in order. I bought the Emotion Thesaurus as recommended by Justine, but I also bought a fantastic book called What Every Body Is Saying, by ex-FBI agent Joe Navarro and psychologist Dr Marvin Karlins. The tagline is An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People and that’s it in a nutshell. Since I started reading this book, I’ve been people-watching on the TV, on the bus, on the tube, everywhere, and it’s been a real eye-opener. For example, there’s a section on pacifying – discreet, socially acceptable gestures that we all adopt to calm ourselves in difficult situations or to soothe our insecurities. In women this might be covering the neck dimple with a hand or playing with a necklace; in a man it could be stroking the neck or chin. I watched a football coach do this repeatedly in a difficult press conference last week and thought ‘aha!’

The book explains that words and actions are governed by different parts of the human brain. Speech is the responsibility of the neocortex brain – the smart, logical thinking centre that’s also the sophisticated, lying part. Our bodies, however, are controlled by the limbic or mammalian brain. It responds to signals in the world around us instantaneously, reflexively, and without thought, so it’s a much truer guide to our feelings. It is possible to mislead with our bodies, but it’s hard. Every part of us sends signals – feet, legs, torso, hips, chest, shoulders, arms, hands, fingers and face. There’s a clue in every gesture, the way we touch someone, our posture, even the distance we stand from another person.

Reading this book has opened up a world of possibilities for me and right now I’m just scratching the surface, but it’s already made a difference to the way my characters behave. A few days ago I wrote about super-bitch Sasha’s first visit to her late father’s company. It’s her twenty-fifth birthday, she’s just inherited control and she’s out to make her mark. I knew that the hapless receptionist would freeze in shock at Sasha’s take-no-prisoners attitude, just as I knew her smug, complacent CEO would start to pacify as he realizes he’s under serious threat.

How good are you at reading body language? Do you have a favorite scene that involves non-verbal ‘tells’?

10 thoughts on “Jilly: Show And Tell

  1. Good stuff. Thanks. It’s important for us to respect our readers’ IQ. The temptation for us to “spell things out” for them stands against the need to simply hint at relationships/moods/silent messages which are manifest through body language.

    • Exactly, Daniel! Giving the reader good information but allowing them the space to draw their own conclusions is much more satisfying for all concerned.

  2. V. interesting! I think I want Navarro’s book for Christmas!

    When I was 10 or 12 (I think), I picked up a book on body language at the library — it looks like it’s no longer in print, but may be around http://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-media/product-gallery/0871319829/ref=cm_cr_dp_cust_img_see_all_img0. Fascinating reading, but I think some slightly different emotions can create very similar body language. I also think some people aren’t good at reading it. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it evolved over time, and I know some gestures are different from culture to culture. Or given different values. Extremely useful, but it can be misinterpreted. Of course, a misunderstanding of this sort can be an important plot point (-:.

    It’s really hard to translate that into text, sometimes. Why is our heroine biting her lip? Is she thinking “Yum, yum!” about some luscious new lover? Is she biting her tongue so hard that she’s biting her lip? Is it a nervous habit? Is she unsure about what’s going to happen next? It can be a lot of words. But, when context, characterization, and description of physical movement converge, it can be synergetic, and you wind up using fewer words in the long run.

    I often think I ought to take up some improv or acting classes to explore this area. I tend to live in my head too much. I love it when a character makes a gesture that wakes me up to the nuances of the scene, though.

    • One of the things I found surprising is that Navarro says nonverbal behavior is universally applicable and can be observed everywhere that humans interact. You still need the skill to decode it, though.

      I like the idea that with people (or characters) you know well you establish a base-line for them so that you know what’s normal for them and when something’s off. Also it makes sense to look for clusters of signals which would reduce the chance of mis- reading.

  3. When I was doing research on poker (academic research!), I ran into another book by Joe Navarro and Marvin Karlins: “Read ‘Em and Reap.” Navarro is also a consultant to professional poker players, and this book is about decoding poker tells. I found it really interesting–like you said, Jilly, it’s about those unconscious actions and gestures, but the limitation is that people are sitting at a poker table, and they’re all trying to give nothing away. And still, they do.

    • Oh, good, Kat – I’m sure you’ll find them useful.

      I’ve been thinking about the base-line behavior for my three main characters. Rose is open about everything so her face and body would be easy to read. Ian’s a business-person and deal-maker so he’d be more like the poker players, trying to control his signals but not succeeding. Sasha was brought up in a wealthy but emotionally stressful environment so she will have been conditioned from childhood to try to suppress every sign of weakness. It’s been interesting to think about how they’d react in a pressure situation.

  4. Ordering the book you recommended, Jilly. I love this kind of stuff! Gives me a lot to think about re: my own characters and making them real. I think in my head I see how the “act” and “react,” but I’m not good at putting that down on paper yet.

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