Body language beats* in fiction are like stage directions. They serve various purposes in fiction:
- Varying the pace of the dialogue
- Tracking your character’s emotions
- Allowing the reader to keep track of who’s saying what, without over-reliance upon ‘he said/she said’.
*Don’t confuse this meaning of ‘beat’ with what theatre folk mean when they say beat — brief pauses in the action. Theatre peeps use the term ‘stage business’ when talking about these kind of beats.
There are other kinds of beats, for example brief snippets of interior monologue.
Body language beats can be handled badly.
- They are especially prevalent in early scenes of a novel.
- Maybe they don’t actually fulfil any of the purposes listed above.
- Body language beats which only serve function number three should be either upgraded or edited out.
- Authors tend to have favourite / go-to / default body language beats which need to be fixed in an edit. I’m inclined to overuse putting hands on someone’s shoulders to establish hierarchy.
- Authors can write so many beats that they end up slowing down the dialogue, rendering it hard to read. This can ruin otherwise excellent dialogue.
- Conversely, interesting body language beats can’t compensate for badly written dialogue. Even when characters are mostly interior, giving little away in dialogue, the dialogue itself needs to be specific to that character. The less you give yourself to work with, the harder that is to do.
- When you give the readers every bit of detail you’re helping the reader to visualise the scene, but you can also limit their own imagination. Certain places (e.g. schools, hospitals) and certain actions (washing dishes, putting on shoes) are common to everyone and don’t need massive amounts of detail, and certainly not in the middle of dialogue scenes.
COMMON BODY LANGUAGE BEATS
The following body language beats can easily become problematic.
- smiling (Surprisingly, Cormac McCarthy likes this one.)
- touching somebody’s face
- holding up hands
- waving hands
- shaking one’s head
- looking / glancing at the earlier / next speaker
- leaning forward/back
- smile ‘plastered’ onto a face
- grins ‘spreading’ across a face
- mucking around with glasses, which annoys me as a glasses wearer when short-sighted characters (who wear glasses almost all the time) take them off for no reason when they would need them to keep seeing.
- rubbing eyes
- eye movements which read as if the eyeballs have a life of their own
I’m pretty confident Steig Larsson was a coffee drinker. Other authors have their character light a cigarette whenever they themselves take a break from the computer to light one up.
EXAMPLES OF BODY LANGUAGE BEATS IN THE WILD
Published body language beats that don’t work for me:
- She scrunches up her lips like she’s considering it. (Because I associate ‘scrunch’ with paper, not lips)
- I blow out a breath. (Because ‘a breath’ feels redundant)
- My mouth is too dry. I swallow, trying to find some spit. (Because spit sounds too gross for the love story that this is)
- Andrew’s eyebrows wrinkle together as if he can sense my sadness. (Because the eyebrows sound like they have a life of their own)
- Nina waggles her eyebrows at me. (Same deal)
- My mouth falls open, but I snap it closed before anyone notices. (This is why some people don’t like first person narrators. If you’re so surprised that you allow your mouth to fall open, how is it that you’re also sentient enough to realise you’re doing it in the first place?)
- Their eyes bounce around the table, silently questioning each other. (Disembodied eyeballs in a horror comedy, when it’s not a horror comedy but a YA romantic sci-fi)
- She mashed her lips into a tight line. (Mashed potato)
- Nina purses her lips in a tight line and rolls her shoulders. (‘Pursing’ is a different action from forming a line. Rolling shoulders sounds like something you do at tennis cool down.)
Body language beats are especially problematic in first person narratives. The problem with first person — or even with close third person — is that the character / narrator can’t see into another character’s mind without ‘head hopping’. (I have a few issues with this old writing group chestnut, material for a different post.) So what do writers do to get around this limitation? They do as well all must in real life — their characters interpret others based solely on body language.
Irony makes everything more interesting, even body language beats. The same applies to adverbs in dialogue tags — it’s more likely to work if the detail you give is unexpected.
- “I totally agree,” she said, shaking her head behind his back.
- “Everyone should eat their greens,” he said, “because greens are good for gut flora.” He opened the bin and tipped the salad in.
- “I am listening to you!” She kept her gaze on the guy outside.
BODY LANGUAGE BEATS IN COMEDY WRITING
Comedy gives writers more scope for originality and hyperbole. Like how it’s easy for horror to slip into comedy, it’s also easy for body language to sound unintentionally humorous. Comedy writers can make the most of this.
Squirrel Girl is a Marvel prequel by Shannon and Dean Hale:
- Ana Sofia’s eyes widened even wider. (Intentional repetition, and also a bit meta because these characters have massive cartoonish eyes.)
- She looked up. She was still frowning, but her eyes weren’t into it. (The eyes deliberately have a life of their own.)
Pax by Sara Pennypacker is a literary, non-funny MG. Despite writing for children, Pennypacker uses strong verbs not often used in spoken English:
- The man had followed him outside. He yanked a thumb over his shoulder. (Pennypacker uses the verb ‘yank’ several times. Other authors say things like ‘hiking a thumb’ in a certain direction.)
- At the corner, he risked a glance over his shoulder. (NOT: At the corner, he glanced over his shoulder.)
- Vola dropped a handful of nails into an overall pocket and slide a hammer into her belt loop. Then she levelled him a gaze. (NOT: Then she gazed at him.)
HOW DO EXCELLENT WRITERS MANAGE BODY LANGUAGE BEATS?
It’s not easy to describe body language. But here’s an example from Annie Proulx:
“The money is good,” said Verna, giving the porch floor a shove that set the glider squeaking. Her apron was folded across her lap, her arms folded elbow over elbow with her hands on her shoulders, her ankles crossed against the coolness of the night. She wore the blue acrylic slippers Santee had given her for Mother’s Day.
From the same story we have a different kind of woman altogether:
“Knock those beadies dead, Earl,” said the wife, drawing her fingernail through a drop of moisture that had fallen from her drink onto the chair arm.
Verna is not only cold, but she’s also in opposition to her husband. Even her apron, ‘folded across her lap’ seems against him.
Annie Proulx knows how to weave psychology into body language:
Snipe introduced himself after the song ended and gave them a broad, gland-hand smile like a proof of good intent. They didn’t care who he was, barely looked at him, and he darkened with embarrassment.
“Ah,” said Snipe, grinning like a set of teeth on a dish.
— “Heart Songs” by Annie Proulx
Here’s another technique utilised by Annie Proulx:
Walter said there was no point in trying to understand what it mean. “It can’t mean anything to us. It only meant something to the one who puts this negative in the tobacco can.”
Buck, wearing a scratchy wool sweater next to his skin, said something under his breath.
— “Negatives” by Annie Proulx
Notice how Proulx didn’t say: ‘Buck said something angrily under his breath’. She told us he was wearing a scratchy wool sweater next to his skin and we deduce that this is part of his anger. I consider this a form of pathetic fallacy—although it’s not the sweater that’s angry—indeed, it’s not even the reason for his anger, the feeling is transferred/attributed to something tangential—the sweater. I love this technique, as people in real life often don’t realise what’s really bothering them in the moment. This technique would be very well suited to a character who is not good at reading their own emotions.
In “Runaway“, Alice Munro describes bursting into tears:
She didn’t do anything to avoid Sylvia’s look. She drew her lips tight over her teeth and shut her eyes and rocked back and forth as if in a soundless howl, and then, shockingly, she did howl She howled and wept and gulped for air and tears ran down her cheeks and snot out of her nostrils and she began to look around wildly for something to wipe with.
— “Runaway” by Alice Munro
When writing body language beats it is so easy to fall into accidental comedy or hyperbole. Adelle Waldman avoids hyperbole but she really skirts close to it in her cringeworthy satire of a modern feminist man navigating the dating world. This is a description of Nathaniel’s best male friend:
“Hannah, Hannah, Hannah,” Jason said. He was leaning on the roof’s railing with his arms extended on either side of his body and his ankles daintily crossed. When he smiled, his wide jawline formed a gratuitously large canvas for his fleshy lips. In his head’s narrower, more delicately constructed upper half, his eyelashes fluttered in a show of affability as disingenuous as the upturn of his mouth.
— The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman
Sometimes, top-notch writers — the writers described as having excellent prose at the line level — manage to avoid these more body language beats entirely. On the other hand, in real life people do nod and grin and shrug. We don’t have to make a seven course meal out of every beat. The best writers also use them. The trick is to make the boring beats totally invisible. Embellishing a body language beat is similar to embellishing ‘said’. If you’re gonna, it better be good.
The doctor looked directly at Meriel. This was not a disagreeable look—it was not aggressive or sly, it was not appraising. But it was not socially deferential, either.
She had started to cough, tried speaking through the cough, gave up, and hacked violently. The doctor got up and struck her expertly a couple of times on her bent back. The coughing ended with a groan. […] She coughed again, though not so desperately as before. Then she raised her head, breathed deeply and noisily for a few minutes, holding up her hands to stall the conversation, as if she would soon have something more, something important, to say. But all she did, finally, was laugh and say, “Now I’ve got a permanent blindfold. Cataracts. Doesn’t get me taken advantage of, in any debauch that I know about.”
— Alice Munro, “What Is Remembered”
How do excellent writers set out their dialogue scenes without confusing the reader about who’s speaking?
- They still use body language beats, but each one is original (you won’t have read it elsewhere)
- Body language beats are manipulated to either speed up the pace (fewer / zero beats) or to slow it down (longer beats).
- Each beat is meaningful. It tells us something about the character’s desire/motivation/interiority. Never just one purpose. Several, layered. Never just ‘to break up the page’.
- This means it’s probably surprising. A character nods while disagreeing, or folds their arms while agreeing.
- Some of the more experimental writers have a non-standard way of writing dialogue scenes, for instance with dashes and no speech marks. While this can read as irritating and pretentious (what, you too good for standard punctuation?) I’m sure these writers do it to avoid the pitfalls that come with the conventions. Not all genres, categories and publishers will accept non-standard dialogue layout, though.
- They may write with very little dialogue, and when there is dialogue, it lasts no longer than about three lines at a time. This means there’s no need to remind the reader who is saying what. But some types of books are dialogue heavy by their nature. It’s harder craft a book length worth of original body language beats in these stories.
- A tongue-in-cheek tip in episode three of the Print Run podcast: Write every scene like it’s a sex scene. This is because when writing sex scenes, it’s rare to fall into the usual traps. When you’re really focusing on the way bodies move in time and space, you’re giving body language the attention it deserves. Also, when you’re writing dialogue, in the first draft you’re mostly consumed with what your characters need to say, and don’t have the headspace to think of original body language beats at the same time. So unless they’re erased in a subsequent draft, unless they’re horrendous there’s a danger they’ll stay there. In fictional sex scenes, characters usually aren’t doing much talking to each other (a discussion for another day). #NotAllSexScenes — see also The Bad Sex In Fiction Award, because when beats in sex scenes go wrong, boy to they go wrong.
GUIDELINES FOR WRITING BODY LANGUAGE BEATS
Characters need a goal in each scene, and the other characters need to be the obstacles in their way, literally and figuratively. You already know human interactions have “push and pull,” so why not physicalize that? Let them actually shove or yank on each other. For physical interactions, I generally stick to a “one-touch” rule: Two characters should touch each other once, and only once, in each scene.
— Excerpt From: Matt Bird. “The Secrets of Story.”
- Learn to recognise what your ‘go-to beats’ are, and in the revision process do a search. Replace with more original beats or at least mix them up a bit.
- Also in revision, check that you haven’t put too many beats in the dialogue thereby making it hard to follow. Actors are advised not to ‘mug for a laugh’. That means adding physical humour when the script calls for the emphasis to remain on the verbal humour. We should follow the same guidelines when writing.
- Likewise, you can’t have too much dialogue without some beats. In TV and movie world the guideline is no more than two pages of conversation without written directions breaking up dialogue. Novels work differently, and it would be a lot less than that.