Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: What body language conveys emotions?

This is the start of a six part mini-series on things I do over and over in writing; things my critique buddies always catch me out on. In fact, they are so common, that I’ve assigned each one letters to save me or someone else having to write long margin notes, explaining I’ve done it again.

What I’m writing about today is WBL. It stands for What body language will I use to convey the character’s emotional reaction?

In the coming weeks, we’ll take a look at

  • STSS: stop telling, start showing
  • PNS: the perfectly nice syndrome
  • VSOP: ditch the back story; condense the context down, like Very Special Old Port, into something where every drop counts
  • BBS: build better segues, and finally
  • VAD: use violence as another form of dialog

“Good morning. My name is Sharon and I’m a short-hander. For years, I’ve expected my readers to figure out for themselves what was going on emotionally with my characters. It is the single biggest mistake I continue to make. Chapters I get back from my critique partners are littered with WBL written in the margin.”

Let’s start with with Jared, a thirteen-year-old boy.

Jared threw his jacket half on a hanger and kicked his trainers into the bottom of the closet. Food smells rolled from the kitchen. He sniffed. Beans-and-franks. A burning sensation filled the back of his throat. He raced upstairs, two at a time.

Before you scroll down past the photo answer the following questions

  1. What do beans-and-franks mean to Jared?
  2. What is Jarod feeling?
  3. What he will do next?
This photo has nothing to do with Jared. It's here so you have a chance to answer the questions before scrolling down.

This photo has nothing to do with Jared. It’s here so you have a chance to answer the questions before scrolling down.

Possibility #1

Jared lay stomach-down on the floor next to the twin bed he shared with his younger brothers. His hand groped under the bed until he found the locked tackle box. He unlocked the box, taking out precious jars of mustard, relish, and ketchup. Big glass bottles that he’d bought on sale. Seventy per cent off. A treat for his younger brothers and sisters.

It didn’t pay to leave glass around when his mother was high. Broken glass was dangerous. Tonight was going to be okay. Beans-and-franks meant his mother had stayed clean long enough to get a paycheck. He’d stay home tonight, wash the dishes, make sure the precious jars were spirited away after supper and locked up, waiting for the next beans-and-franks night.

Possibility #2

Jared made it to the bathroom before he threw up. Retching into the toilet, bile and saliva dribbling down his chin, he beat his fist against the top of the toilet tank. Why couldn’t Grammy listen? The nurse at the hospital had told her and told her that the chemotherapy made him sick, and that meat smells were the worse of all. He had to eat; Grammy would insist. He hoped make it to the bathroom in time after supper.

Possibility #3

Jared rooted under a pile of clothes for his ball and glove. Flipping the ball into the air as he came down the steps whistling, he bounded for the kitchen.

George Tolliver turned from the stove, “Hey, kid. Your mom’s running late tonight. I told her we could manage supper. It’s just beans-and-franks.”

“Yeah, I know. Omelets and beans-and-franks are the only things you know how to make,” Jared said, grinning so hard his mouth hurt. “How was your trip?”


“You got time to play catch?”

George dished out two plates. “Later. Sit down. Tell me how you’ve been the last couple of weeks.”

If I’d stopped with Jared’s throat burning, and him running up the stairs, in all likelihood the reader would have assumed a different emotional reaction, a different story, than the one I was trying to tell.

In my unfinished manuscript, I hurried through this scene, more a set of notes to myself about what I want the scene to show. Sure enough WBL showed up in the critique. For the rewrite I forced myself to slow down, to think about what George’s infrequent visits meant to both Jared and George.

  • Jared’s really glad to see George , but he’s also can’t believe his good luck of this guy being in his life. He’s afraid every visit is George’s last.
  • George is working hard to convince Jared that he has no intention of disappearing, but he knows Jared is skittish.
  • Hint that there is a problem with the mother.
  • Aim for a bittersweet feeling: the guy cares about Jared, but . . .

I will remember the power of why in plotting. I will try for at least 5 levels of why, in order to raise the stakes and go deep into character motivation.~Jo Beverly, romance writer

Why does Jared relate the way he does with George?

  1. Life is tough for Jared. Why?
  2. His mother is barely hanging on. Why?
  3. She’s overwhelmed raising a teenager boy, alone, working at a low-paying job. Why?
  4. Every man she’s partnered with left her, which destroyed her self-confidence. She passed those feelings on to Jared, which has made him insecure. Why?
  5. Jared thinks any good man who shows an interest in him will disappear out of his life.

Once I knew what was going on with the two guys, I picked strong verbs: rooted—flipping—bounded—skidded—manage: the first four imply movement, the last one has the bittersweet flavor I’m looking for. Jared and George aren’t on top of the world, they’re just managing.

This scene resolved itself easily because I was comfortable in the story and clear on my characters’ motivations. If I’m having real trouble rewriting a scene, this exercise helps break the impasse:

  • Assign colors to four elements that can be used to build a scene. Dialog = red; body language = blue; leftover emotions from previous scenes = yellow; and sensory texture = green.
  • Highlight text that I’ve already written, either on the computer, or a hardcopy with markers.
  • Tape the pages on a wall or, if I’m using the computer, I adjust the page size so I can get all the scene pages on the screen.
  • Walk away from the wall or screen, turn around, and let the colors hit me in the face. The predominant color is easy to see; in my case, it’s almost always red. Lots of dialog, not much of the other three elements.
  • If I still can’t figure out how to rewrite the scene, I assign elements at random: blue—green—green—yellow—red—yellow—blue and so on. Being an old gamer, I still having a jar full of dice. In cases of extreme writers’ block, I use the dice to randomly generate a color pattern.
  • Then I challenge myself to write what those colors represent, in this case, body language—sensory texture—sensory texture—leftover emotion—dialog—leftover emotion—body language.
  • Having done this, I can almost always take the elements, which may be out of order on the first pass, and rearrange them into some meaningful whole.

We need to write a character’s emotional reaction until we can’t add a single new thing to that reaction without changing the entire tenor of the scene.

If we go back to the second possibility, Jared throwing up as a result of chemotherapy, and, instead of ending with Jared fears about throwing up again after supper, we add a total non sequitur, something like . . .

. . .He hoped he’d be able to make it to the bathroom in time after supper. Oh, well, none of that really mattered. Maybe there would be a Simpson’s rerun on TV tonight.

If the reader’s reaction would be, “Huh? What just happened here?” this is a good clue that we’ve reached the end of describing a character emotional reaction.

I hope to see  you again next Tuesday, July 15th, for the next part in our mini-series: STSS, the dreaded stop telling, start showing.

And if you’re overwhelmed with social media and other marketing, I’ll have some thoughts on that on Thursday, July 10, with a piece I call Lay Down Our Sword and Shield.