Monday, October 22, 2012

Body language sounds filthy if you say it right

Though I make it a point to keep politics out of my social media activity, I'm passionate about the subject (and not in a "presidential kneepads" sorta way).

Since my gentleman friend shares my political passion, we were disappointed to realize the 2012 U.S. vice presidential debate was scheduled in the middle of our road trip to Seattle two weeks ago. Attempting to view a live, televised program while driving slick mountain roads seemed unwise, so we opted for finding a radio broadcast of the debate.

The aforementioned mountain pass made for spotty radio reception, and the debate broadcast was punctuated by loud bursts of static and the occasional evangelical sermon. But we made the best of it, and the two of us enjoyed a rousing post-debate discussion of how things had gone for our preferred candidate.

It wasn't until we arrived at our destination and reconnected with modern technology that we got any sense of what the rest of the world was saying about the debate. Regardless of political persuasion, most seemed to agree that body language set the tone for the exchange. There was eye-rolling, smirking, head-shaking, wild gesturing, and possibly a wedgie issued by one candidate to the other.

We missed all of it. As a result, we had a very different perspective on the debate.

Regardless of whether that's a good or bad thing, it got me thinking about writing. Every year, I volunteer to judge a writing contest through my local RWA chapter. In this year's batch of entries, I came across one that was enchantingly well-written and clever. The dialogue in particular was fast-paced and witty, and moved the story along at a delightfully quick pace.

But that was also a bit of a drawback. The exchanges of dialogue were so fast and snappy, there were few words devoted to body language. There was very little scene-setting, and not enough context clues to inform the reader where the characters were sitting, how they were speaking to one another, and how they were impacted by each other's words.

Is she shouting or whispering? 

Is he surprised by what she's saying, or did he already know?

Is she sitting back in her chair, or perched nervously on the edge?

Is the room dim, or well-lit?

Is he hearing what she's saying, or distracted by her hair or her eyes or bad breath or a scar on her face or the button that's come undone on her blouse?

These are the kinds of comments I made throughout the manuscript. Though judging is always anonymous, the contest coordinator forwarded me a lovely thank you note last week from the author of the entry. The writer was grateful for the feedback, and expressed amazement what a difference the added detail would make in overall character development and scene-setting.

This did not prompt me to give myself a smug pat on the back or smirk over how I never make such a mistake in my own writing. On the contrary, it's easy for me to spot because it's something I fall prey to constantly as an author.

It's easy to get caught up in the quick pace of a scene and forget the need to show your reader what's happening. I'm not talking about injecting huge blocks of copy that slow the pace of the writing. Just a few small details giving someone's tone of voice or facial expression can make a huge difference in how the reader experiences a scene.

If you're a writer, how do you remember to show (rather than tell) the body language and interplay between your characters? Or for the non-writers in the group, what sort of difference does it make being able to see a conversation or debate, as opposed to just hearing the words? Please share!

And lest you think I forgot Friday's book giveaway contest, congratulations to C.L. who offered up this terrific idea for a Halloween costume:

A friend of mine created the best Halloween costume ever (IMHO) and one I think you'll appreciate. She was a "One-Night Stand." She wore a lampshade on her head and built a "table" out of cardboard which encircled her waist. The table had champagne glasses (plastic), condoms, handcuffs, Cosmo magazines and a lipstick tube glued to it.

Love it! If I didn't already have my ninja costume prepared, I'd totally steal this. C.L., shoot me an email to tawnafenske at yahoo dot com letting me know your snail mail address and whether you'd prefer a signed copy ofBelieve it or Not or a signed copy of Making Waves.

And thanks to everyone for playing!


Teri Anne Stanley said...

Great reminders about adding context...but please, people: easy on the smirking, eye rolling and lip biting. Just sayin. One smirk per manuscript is enough for me...

Raley Blue said...

Yes, sadly, we'll refer to it as, THAT PARTICULAR SERIES, ruined smirking, eye rolling and lip biting for all of us... sigh. But she didn't patent it. Just sayin'. ;)

What I really wanted to say was, I laughed when I read the opening of this post about saying "body language" just right... It made me think of Ursula the Sea Witch in The Little Mermaid, when she tells Ariel not to understimate the power of b-aaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh-deeee language, lol. True story: My Grammy went out and bought an Ursula figurine for her bathroom based on that scene. She says it "empowers the va-va-voom of beautiful fat ladies everywhere." Gotta love that. (btw, I'm a fat lady, not a fat hatah... nobody freak, 'kay?)

Amy said...

I write talk talk talk and do a lot of the context when I'm reworking/editing. But that's just my process - fast and dirty first draft and then make it decent after... hm ;)
I like loaded tags, as in action and thoughts and key details of description instead of he said/she said. If description is woven into the dialogue it's not so heavy and if we see it as the character notices it then we get more in their head and on their side... or that's the goal.

Caryn Caldwell said...

My first draft is almost always talk, talk, talk with few dialogue tags or physical markers. I usually dedicate an entire round of revisions to fleshing everything out, layering in setting, emotion, physical reactions, etc. That's when it starts to feel like a book. (Admittedly, though, my intentional layering-in came after a few readers called me on my talking-head syndrome in one of my first manuscripts.)