Friday, September 20, 2019

Body Language

This week I had the pleasure of meeting in person, for the first time, a writer with whom I’ve been corresponding by e-mail for the last three and a half years. She’s a member of Five Directions Press, so the other two founders—that is, the rest of my writers’ group—have also been in e-mail contact with her since 2016, but only I have had the chance to talk with her via Skype in connection with the New Books Network.

The meetings went very well, but that’s not the point of my post. What I realized once again based on these relatively brief encounters, which lasted altogether no more than six or seven hours spread across a weekend, is how much body language and expression affect understanding and, in a sense, what a difficult task we novelists assign ourselves. Even scriptwriters have the advantage of knowing that their words will be given life by actors who may not look exactly like the characters in the writers’ heads but who, if talented, can convey all the nuances of emotion that stance and expression and voice communicate so much more effectively than words on a page.

I know: this isn’t exactly earth-shattering news. Most of us know, if we stop to think, how readily text messages and e-mail lead to misunderstandings. Why else do we constantly expand the range of emojis in the vain hope of underlining that, yes, that snarky comment was intended as a joke—something we would never need to do in real life because tone and laughing face make the point for us.

Nevertheless, when we sit down to write—and even to read—it’s worth thinking about how much work goes into revealing not just what characters say but what they mean. On a movie screen, we can guess: an actor smiles, and we know right away whether that smile conveys joy, naiveté, surprise, sarcasm, or any one of a dozen other reactions or combinations of reaction. We know even when the character says something quite different. 

But a writer can’t keep saying “he smiled” or “she frowned.” It gets boring. “She smiled sarcastically” or “he frowned in contemplation” is permissible once in a while, but used too often it draws attention to itself in the wrong ways. Shouldn’t the reader be able to tell from the dialogue if a character is angry or thoughtful, sarcastic or sincere?

Novelists and short story writers do have one asset unavailable to script- and screenwriters and even ordinary listeners: the internal monologue. When a character means one thing and says another, we can show what goes through that person’s head. We can also illustrate different interpretations through dialogue: Character A says this, and Character B reacts with that. And we have action verbs, which get to body language: a person who struts leaves a different impression from one who strolls, strides, or minces.

That’s part of the fun of writing fiction, at least for me. How do I differentiate my characters through language, gesture, mode of thought, appearance? How do I fill them out and bring them to life so that readers can relate to these imaginary people as friends, family, or no one they’d ever want to associate with in real life?

Yet sometimes, I’d just like to sit them down for a cup of coffee. Or turn them over to a crackerjack film director and her handpicked cast to see what the professionals could do with them. Because what counts is the body language, when all’s said and done.

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