Body Language Surrounding Dialogue

When I write a first draft, it’s almost all dialogue.  I don’t know why.  I do try to get across some body language, mostly facial body language, I guess, but it’s frustrating.  How many ways can Johanna wrinkle her nose or catch herself mouth breathing?

Is focusing on facial expressions a hack tendency?  Probably.  At least for hacks who aren’t good at it.

The following might be extremely useful to those writing for late teens and their parents.  Below, I’ve gone through several pages of “The Hunger Games” by Collins, taking out phrases that show characters’ feelings and meanings through body language – including the most shunned and yet content-rich form of body language, the tone of the character’s voice.  If you’re a hack, you might want to copy and paste this stuff to a Word document, print it out and read it every day for a while.  Here goes:

List of body language phrases from “The Hunger Games”, changed to third person, past tense just for the fun of it.

“I was being very mysterious,” she said, her eyes squinted half shut

she beamed at us so brilliantly that we had no choice but to respond enthusiastically.

said Effie grimly.

she said, looking up at the girl.

snapped Effie.

She asked stupidly.

she stammered, and the wine was not helping.

Peta snapped his fingers.

even our own party let out an, “Ahh!” as they…

said Haymitch to Peta and her.

(Peta talking) “Have you been on the roof yet?”  She shook her head.  (Peta talking again in the same paragraph) “Cinna showed me…”

She translated this into, “No one will hear us talking,” in her head.

he admitted.

she whispered.

he whispered back.

For a moment she was silent as she remembered how… [flashback]

…,” she continued to Peta, “…

he asked…

…she replied.

he asked, as he secured a button at her neck.

…Peta blurted out.  Then he looked around nervously. It was loud enough to hear above the chimes.  He laughed… He’d covered again.  If that was all you heard, it would have just sounded like the words of a scared tribute, not someone contemplating the unquestionable goodness of the Capitol.

Peta nodded, unreadable.

“Yes,” she said, observing him carefully.

She exchanged a look with Peta.

she asked him suspiciously.

she snapped at him.

he shot back.

…,” she told Heymitch

said Peta in disgust.

…if I get jumped I’m dead!” She could hear her voice rising in anger.

…,” burst out Peta.

she said with a wave of dismissal.

that pulled her up short.

she saw the pain in Peta’s eyes and knew he wasn’t lying.

Peta rolled his eyes at Haymitch, “She has no idea. The effect she can have.”

She muttered.

Peta and she nodded.

She heard Peta’s voice in her head.

We both started to object, but Haymitch slammed his hand on the table.

She bit her lip and stalked back to her room, making sure Peta could hear the door slam.  She sat on the bed, hating Haymitch, hating Peta, and hating herself for…

Who, by the way, clearly didn’t want to be partnering up with her either.

Obviously meaning to demean her, right?  But a tiny part of her wondered if this was a compliment.

she caught herself biting her nails.  She stopped at once.

Her heart sank.

Now she saw nothing but contempt in the glances of the Career Tributes.

Peta nudged her arm and she jumped.

His expression was sober.

the trainer seemed pleased…

Peta genuinely seemed to enjoy this

The trainer was full of enthusiasm about his work.

he admitted to me.

…,” began Peta.

…,” she broke in.

[they] were sitting alone like lost sheep.

Haymitch kept dogging us about it

They both gave a somewhat convincing laugh and ignored the stares from around the room.

it was wearing us both out.

there had been a chill in the air between us.

She tried to animate her face as she recalled the event

Peta laughed and asked questions right on cue.  He was much better at this than she was.

…,” he whispered to me.

he said softly.

She bit her lip.

…?” She asked him, more harshly than she intended.

…,” he said back.

Haymitch and Effie grilled us

Not that Haymitch and Effie are fighting anymore, they seem to be of one mind, determined…

Peta mumbles

She made a sound that was somewhere between a snort and a laugh. Then caught herself.  It was messing with her mind too much,

he said tiredly.

“…the weights.” The words came out of her mouth without permission.

She nodded. She didn’t know why she said anything at all.

She smoothed her hair, set her shoulders back and walked into the Gymnasium.

She shoulder-rolled forward, came up on one knee, and…

[they] nodded approval

[they] were fixated on…

Suddenly she was furious

Her heart started to pound

Without thinking, she

She heard shouts of alarm as people stumbled back.

she gave a slight bow and walked toward the exit without being dismissed.

She brushed past

[she] hit the number 12 button with her fist

before the tears started running down her cheeks

then she really began to sob.

she was so angry at being ignored.

she should have stayed and apologized

she shouted for them to go away

it took… an hour for her to cry herself out.

She just lay curled up on the bed, stroking the silken sheets, watching the sun set over the artificial candy capitol.

She calmed down.

The saltiness reminded her of her tears.

She let her eyes meet Peta’s.  He raised his eyebrows. A question. What happened? She just gave her head a small shake.

Then, as [something happened], she heard Haymitch say,

Peta jumped in. “I don’t know that it mattered…

Somehow Haymitch calling her sweetheart ticked her off enough that she was able to speak.

Everyone stopped eating.

The horror in Effie’s voice confirmed her worse [sic] suspicions.

she said defiantly.

said Cinna carefully.

gasped Effie.

she felt like a ton of coal had dropped on her.

And she realized the impossible had happened.  They had actually cheered her up. Haymitch picked up a pork chop with his fingers, which made Effie frown, and dunked it in his wine.  He ripped off a hunk of meat and started to chuckle.  “What were their faces like?”


That last line of Haymitch’s is a taunt to hack writers like me around the world.  Although Collins doesn’t spend much time describing the actual expressions on faces, she tells you other things that answer the question fairly specifically, “What were their faces like?”

Go back and read the whole list again and each time ask yourself if you can see the expression on the face of the character.

For instance, “She smoothed her hair, set her shoulders back and walked into the Gymnasium.”  Tell me you can’t see her face.  It’s all there.  She’s got a determined, confident look.  If you’re a total hack like me, you’re going to describe where her eyebrows were, whether her eyes were wide, squinted or otherwise.  You’re going to say that she clenched her jaws tight and almost bit the inside of her mouth.  You would say that she flared her nostrils ever so slightly.  But none of it would be as good as, “She smoothed her hair, set her shoulders back and walked into the Gymnasium.”

The reason it’s not as good has to do with the work factor of reading.  More words for the same effect equals more energy required to read.  Since it’s so important, I want to talk about it in a new way…

Directed attention happens when you see a new book, decide you’re going to read it, and start reading through the first chapter.  Fascination kicks in when you begin to feel for the main character enough to genuinely care what will happen to her.

At that point, your mind is resting from the task of “directed attention,” and has switched over into the “involuntary attention” of fascination.

This is based on Attention Restoration Therapy (A.R.T.), “…the separation of attention into two components: involuntary attention, where attention is captured by inherently intriguing or important stimuli, and voluntary or directed attention, where attention is directed by cognitive-control processes [self-discipline].”

Here’s more about A.R.T.:

But I digress…

Collins can show you a character’s face without saying one word about the actual face.  This is an efficient use of words.  It gives “involuntary attention” (fascination) a chance to survive the self-disciplined work of reading.

Good readers may never understand this because reading is effortless to them.  But if they decide to write fiction, they ought to trust a slow-reading hack on this.

My listing of Collins tools and brush strokes (above) taught me other odd things…

First off, look at all the adverbs she uses!  How can my adverb-o-phobia survive?

And what about economy of the villainous adjectives?  She let’s ’em fly and readers eat them up.

Every time I’ve had a writer who’s above hack level edit my stuff, he/she crosses out all kinds of words that Collins has left in this best-selling young adult novel.  Even the never-surviving-once-in-my-life word, “just,” is standing there on her pages in defiance.  When I write, I delete the word, “just,” several times per page.  I’ve been brainwashed.

Can anyone explain this to me?  Seriously, I’m not just trying to get you to “leave a comment” on my site so I can rejoice over my blog’s first comment and go eat some Ice Cream and Ruffles.  And turn the TV on.  Hmmm.

Actually that may be entirely it.

Never mind.

Another thing, though.  As I was re-reading “Hunger Games” in analytic mode, I noticed what a huge percentage of every page is devoted to expressing how the characters feel, especially how Katness feels.  This is facilitated by her writing in first person present.  Every word is Katness talking intimately and honestly with the reader.

But how-to books on writing, as well as the various writers who have “edited” my stuff, have always expunged my sparse use of “inner dialogue,” saying, “It slows the pace.”

What?  The Hunger Games reads like a roadster and it’s overflowing with inner dialogue.  The whole book, in my view, is dialogue (Katniss talking to the reader).

I remember back in the 90’s when I first started reading books written to help fiction writers. They hammered home the meaning and the eternal importance of having one viewpoint character at a time, preferably sticking to that one viewpoint for at least the whole chapter, if not the whole book.  But when I would grab a best-seller at the store, I’d see omniscient viewpoint quite often.

I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but…

Successful authors actually do have a secret handshake.  I don’t know if they chant and sacrifice goats, but they definitely meet in the dark and pay hooded ghouls to write “how to” books for hacks, making sure to preach the opposite of what’s selling.

It’s like the school system, teaching kids exactly the opposite of what they would need to know if they wanted to avoid working for peanuts to make somebody else rich.

But I digress…

It seems that if you want to write a young adult novel, you should think about writing in first person present. Make every paragraph pregnant with someone’s feelings.  Use adverbs and adjectives as much as you want, perhaps more than you want if you’re OCD about it, like I am.  And forget about complete sentences.  They suck.  That’s the new rule.

Have you heard it said that young adult writers don’t have to be as “good” as those writing for grown-ups?

I don’t believe it.  True there is more freedom to focus on the character’s emotions.  Yeah, maybe you can get away with adverbs and adjectives – at least if you’re Collins.  But bringing characters to life is pretty much impossible no matter what type of story you write.  Taking a reader from the task of reading to a state of fascination where the book almost reads itself is magic.  Very few books can do that for me because my poor reading ability (maybe a touch of dyslexia) makes the act of reading a lot more work than it should be.

Young Adult writers seem to have more freedom of choice and less tolerance of dogma.  Personally, I find that inspiring.

M. Talmage Moorehead

2 thoughts on “Body Language Surrounding Dialogue

  1. I’m enjoying your posts, especially this one. I feel your ‘pain’ and have thought the same things about successful writers. A while back I put away the ‘how to write a successful book’ books. My plan today is to eat a Twinkie, walk my dogs, and get back to writing my story! Thanks for the likes on my posts. I’m following you and wish you happy writing.

    • Thank you. I find that reading bestsellers is the best teacher. The “How To” books are fairly contradictory one to the next, and seem to disagree with the authors of the bestsellers. Strange how that is.

      Somehow I answered this post early today, promising you that I’d take my dog for a walk, as I recall. That must have gotten lost. Well, we walked on the treadmill together. There’s a brief and boring video of us doing that on And then we went to the river beach and got in the water. It was great. My efforts to write today were less fruitful, though. This blogging is like a drug and the story is in a difficult spot where the work of sf description awaits me in a place that’s difficult to visualize.

      Sleep well, Eleanorparkersapia. I know I will. 🙂

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