actions speak louder than words, Ava Sykes, Ava Sykes Novel, body language, characters, Fiction writing, Kim Falconer, Kreshkali, Lumbomir Bukov, novels, Save the Day, show don't tell, The Blood in the Beginning
Inspired for revision by my Voyager post in 2011.
There are a lot of things to keep in mind when writing fiction — world building, action, suspense, characterization. Another key component is dialog and I am always looking for ways to ‘show not tell’ when it comes to my characters’ conversations. It’s tricky because they are actually telling when they speak. One way to ease back on the exposition in dialog is to use body language along with the words. Here is an example of what I mean.
This is a short excerpt from The Blood in the Beginning, my soon to be released Urban Fantasy. It’s a conversation between Ava Sykes and her mentor Detective Rourke. First consider it with the tags/body language and actions removed. Do we really know what’s going on?
‘You look like hell, Ava.’
‘So do you … tell me you haven’t lit up.’
We have an idea, but there’s no subtext. It has to be taken flat, at face value.
Here is the same conversation, with tags, body language and actions. The subtext and relationship becomes clearer.
Rourke paused for a moment before taking the single lounge chair opposite me. ‘You look like hell, Ava.’
I leaned in to focus on his face. ‘So do you.’ He smelled of cigarettes and exhaustion. ‘Tell me you haven’t lit up.’
I took a long, exaggerated sniff. ‘Liar.’
Now look at the same dialog with different body language. What’s the subtext showing you, without words?
Rourke sat in the single lounge chair opposite me and tried not to smile. ‘You look like hell, Ava.’
I scooted forward until our knees touched. ‘So do you.’ My nose twitched. ‘Tell me you haven’t lit up.’
‘Haven’t.’ His gaze didn’t waver.
I leaned in close to his neck and took a long, lingering sniff. ‘Liar,’ I whispered.
Suddenly we have a romantic moment! (which is NOT how they relate in the book).
There are plenty of actions that show readers what’s going on without having to literally spell it out: Rub the back of your neck and look down? Lying! Point a finger and shout? Threatening! Cross arms and take a step back? Defensive! Fiddling with small objects and avoiding eye contact? Nervous as hell!
But keep in mind not all body language is universal. For example holding hands or looping arms with a person of the same sex in public in our culture is likely to be interpreted as a gay/lesbian relationship. In Japan, it’s a common behavior between friends (two women or two men). I’m guessing that when books are translated for foreign publication, the body language has to be assessed for meaning as much as the words themselves.
How about you? Is there a particular kind of body language you spot a mile away and think, I know what’s really going on? Share it if you do.
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