Guest Post & Giveaway: Angela Ackerman on Writing Body Language: Moving Beyond the Basics

Angela at the Grand Canyon

By Angela Ackerman

If there is one universal struggle I hear about from writers, it is repeat gesturing. This is when those shrugs, frowns, feet shuffling and smiles sprinkle themselves across a manuscript because they are obvious choices to show a character’s emotions.

The most common are ones that involve the eyes, face and hands, as well as internal ‘tells’ such as heartbeat and breathing changes.

The big problem with obvious gesturing is that it is often synonymous with tired and overused, or worse, cliché.

Settling for phrasing that’s been done to death can not only make a character’s actions and emotions seem a bit hollow, it can also impact the empathy link between reader and character. For readers to fully immerse themselves in the story and character’s plight, they need to invest themselves emotionally. This means not only creating compelling circumstances that allow for rich, emotional interaction between characters, it means bringing the reader up close and letting them experience what the character is feeling.

Fresh writing is the key to emotional showing, and this means thinking beyond the basics of body language. It also means understanding the body’s instinctive responses (known as visceral reactions) and the thought process that accompanies an emotional experience. Drawing on all three of these as you describe will bright about a rich, layered description that will captivate readers.

Here are three tips to put the fresh back into your expressions.

1) Mine Your Memories

Sit back from the keyboard for a moment and think about what emotion your character is feeling. There may be several, but one will be the root cause of the others.

When you find it, think about a time where you felt the same emotion. Then, recreate that moment and allow your body to take over. What is it doing?

Let’s pretend it’s guilt. Is there a sour taste in your mouth? Does your stomach bunch up? Does your throat feel painful?

Act out the feeling and move around. Do you hold your arms close to the body? Is your posture slumped? Are your eyes closed, or open?

Keep mining until you find a movement that is fresh and unique.

2) Use the Setting

Setting is so much more than a backdrop, so have your character interact with it. Touching is intimate. What objects within the setting trigger feelings of safety or strife? Build these into the scene and show your character react to them.

Body language will also shift depending on how a person can express themselves. Confined to a chair, a character may show emotion differently than he would standing around a campfire, or in an elevator full of people.

Personality and comfort level will also affect body language, because people act differently alone versus in a group.

3) Watch People (but don’t be creepy about it)

I know, this one seems a bit basic, but it’s something all writers
should be doing. And don’t shy away from locations that provide high
emotion either–people who are visibly upset, excited or frustrated are
treasure troves of unique body movements! 

Sasha takes five in Angela’s favorite reading spot.

Take advantage of wherever you are–a doctor’s office waiting room, at a pub watching the game, hustling through the grocery store.

Keep an eye out for that uncomfortable patient, exuberant fan, or overwrought mom with three kids bouncing all around her.

Bottom line is that each of us express ourselves in our own way, and we must strive to do this with our characters. Dig deeper and think beyond the ‘easy’ gestures. Then, using a combination of thoughts, visceral responses and body movement, create your character’s unique emotional footprint on the page!

Cynsational Notes

Angela Ackerman is a Canadian who writes on the darker side of middle grade and young adult. A strong believer in writers helping writers, she blogs at the award winning resource, The Bookshelf Muse, and is co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression (also by Becca Puglisi). Angela is represented by Jill Corcoran of The Herman Agency.

Cynsational Giveaway

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression is a writer’s best friend, helping to navigate the challenging terrain of showing character emotion. This brainstorming tool explores seventy-five emotions and provides a large selection of body language, internal sensations, actions and thoughts associated with each. Written in an easy-to-navigate list format, readers can draw inspiration from character cues that range in intensity to match any emotional moment.

Enter to win The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. Author sponsored; eligibility: U.S./Canada.

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45 thoughts on “Guest Post & Giveaway: Angela Ackerman on Writing Body Language: Moving Beyond the Basics

  1. I think we are often in too much of a hurry and don't always take the time to 'mine the memories', as you say, for the fresh. Thank you, for I am guilty of overusing the obvious at times!

  2. All three are great suggestions. I especially agree with #3 (observing others). I actually carry a gesture diary in my purse. Whenever I see a gesture I like or find interesting, I make a note of the motion.

    In a lecture I attended at Vermont College of Fine Arts, the speaker suggested to also practice the motions yourself, so that you can pull from your own muscle memory when you're writing.

  3. I often use the "hackneyed" gestures as place holders when I'm writing to get the story out. But it is difficult to then wade through all the "her breathing quickened," "her pulse raced," etc. Thanks for the tips!

  4. I have struggled with this of course. and am always appalled at how many "nods" and "shrugs" my characters do! Thanks for posting, Cyn, and to Amanda for such hands-on solutions.

  5. What a great post! Often times, when I'm writing, I stumble upon this issue of body language. I tend to go with the blah norms, but this post has encouraged me to look beyond the cliche terms. The book listed above looks like a winner. 😛

  6. Spot on advice – now I know what to do with my mc's gangly legs when she is in that cramped backseat with her new flame. Thanks!

  7. What a great, obvious, highly important, and very useful concept! Fifty shades of grey author could have used this book, if the amazon comments are anything to guess by.

  8. Wonderful tips, I can really get some mileage pout of these ideas. Thanks for posting and offering this book for a giveaway.

  9. As an editor, I see scads of cliche gestures, and I'm always pushing the authors I work with to be creative and find something new to use. I'll be sure to recommend this post to those authors. Thanks!

  10. I am a fanatical people watcher!! The way someone moves through a lobby, the swishing of a rain-damp coat, the shudder of a child after a roll of thunder. So much richness and fun in these little details when we bring them onto our pages!

  11. I've used a few suggestions off the Book Muse site. Very helpful! I like Sarah-Ann's idea about writing down a gesture. I've been people watching for just that, gestures. I need to make a noted of them now.
    Thinks for the tips and ideas!

  12. I've been waiting for a post like this to pop up! I often use the same gestures in my own writing a little too often: narrowing eyes, set jaw, ect.

  13. Joanna, I find this one really helpful. Each of us is a body language expert if you think about it. If we recreate the experience, our body will start to react, and we can write down what we feel!

    Sarah-Ann, I LOVE the idea of a Gesture Diary! That is such a great idea. I am going to remember to do that!!

    @Jodi, I am so glad these are helpful–best of luck with your writing!

    @Deborah, Thanks for stopping in!

    @Ellen, I do the same thing–I use them in the first draft as 'placeholders' and then once I'm ready to revise, I challenge myself on every bit of body language to see if I can come up with something stronger. 🙂

    @Linda, shrugs is one of my big ones, too! And smiling. And frowning. Yikes. But half the battle is recognizing our weaker gestures, and then we can cut them out, right?

    @Candilynn, I am so glad this post is going to help you.. It really does add to the reader experience when we describe emotion well, so worth the effort!

    @Kathleen, so glad this sparked an idea! Woot!

    @Anon, so glad you liked this post. 🙂 Thanks for the visit!

    @Carl, so glad this will help!

    @Shely, thank you! Have a great writing week. 🙂

    And a GIANT thank you to Cynthia for hosting me today. What an honor to be on the same blog that has helped me so much over the years! I sure appreciate all you do. 🙂

    Angela Ackerman

  14. Eldra, I can imagine what you see crossing your desk–thanks so much for the recommendation 🙂

    Bullish, it is a great habit to get into, isn't it? I need to do this more often, because there are just so many advantages to people-watching.

    @Skipperz, good luck in the draw!

  15. It's the silent communication that's so important. A person or a character can verbalize one thing and communicate something totally different with his body language.

    Great to see this here!

  16. I love the use of body language, I always build settings in terms of peoples reactions, and often forget about the actual dialogue.

    Mining your memories is essential, I wrote a post called Lost drawing from my own and loved it

  17. It never fails to amaze me, how universal this problem is. We all seem to struggle with it. So thanks for the tips, Agnela. And thank you, Cynthia, for hosting her!

  18. Fantastic and (timely) post! I'm knee deep in revisions, concentrating specifically on exactly this. I don't want my characters to just say, tell and reply, nor just roll their eyes and bite their lips. I want them to breathe and react. This is so helpful, thank you!

  19. @Lee, it's amazing to think that 93% of communication is nonverbal. That's HUGE! It's definitely an area where we writers need to learn to convey well, because the reader will naturally pick up on body language and interpret emotion from it.

    @Kitty, thanks for the visit–always great to see you in comments 🙂

    @SJP, I used to be afraid of body language, but now I love it to. There is so much that can be done with it if we just dig a little.

    @Becca *waves at twin*

  20. I am struggling to make my writing stronger, so would love to win a copy of the Emotional Thesaurus.


    jkbsfsd at msn dot com

  21. Great advice. I need to work on moving past the cliche. You've given me a lot to think about!

  22. I love these tips – the mining memories reminds me very much of some exercises I've done in acting classes. Knew those would come in handy!

    I'm definitely trying to people watch more – I just have to remember to write down what I discover.

  23. GREAT piece, Angela! Many thanks to you and Cynthia. This topic has been on my mind the past few weeks as I've been revising my YA. I tend to overuse crying, heart beating and various breathing actions – as well as too much smiling. Need more variety! 🙂

  24. I struggle a lot with this, especially in character responses to other characters while in conversation. But I think I'm getting better. I just got the ebook form of the book and looked at it. I love that it's formstted where you can click on something in the Table Of contents and be taken to the page. Would love a hard copy, but the ebook is good for now. With the book, I can already see how my writing will be improved exponentially. Thanks so much for it!

  25. Body language is a fascinating subject and much seems intuitive. But writing body language is different, or, at least I find it so, and can use all the help I can get. Thank you for the insights.

  26. I think I write emotion well, but I would love to have the emotional thesaurus to get past all those cliches.

  27. My issue is that my body language ideas are too hard to describe. Like for example, "she held out her hand and made a sarcastic expression." I could act this out and you'd know exactly what I mean, but it just doesn't translate in prose.

  28. Thanks for stopping in, Janet!

    Jeanne, I am so glad this post helps!

    Stephanie, I agree, happiness can be a tough one (which is funny, because usually it's the negative emotions that bring us the most challenges.) Try to think about your character's personality and how happiness might manifest for them.

    Anon, That's great! It's all about moving past those easy body gestures to create something unique!

    Gypsy, yes, mining memories can be great for settings and sensory descriptions, too!

    Kimberly, thank you! I am so happy this post came at the right time for you–that's wonderful.

    Angie, I agree, dialogue can be a challenge, because we don't want our characters to just stand there, and we also don't want to rely too heavily on the face to describe, either. Glad the ET is helping you!

    @EKcarmel, I agree, body language is so fascinating. It's funny, Becca and I wrote this book because we struggle with body language, but now I love the possibilities!

    @Amanda, Good luck!!

    @Unknown, try to use recognizable gestures, and actually describe the sarcasm. What does her face do that shows sarcasm? This is how we show her expression, not gloss over it.

    Wishing you all luck int he draw!!

  29. Fantastic post! I've been using the ideas in The Emotion Thesaurus and integrating them with the tidbits from the world I'm trying to construct. I love pushing those typical body language descriptions and personalizing them. Thanks for all the advice!

  30. Hi Cynthia,
    Just found your blog because it was mentioned on the #MyWana Twitter hashtag and I'm really enjoying it! I've been a people watcher from way back and try not to be too creepy about it.

    Great post!

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