A shrug can communicate a thousand words. I think an eye roll carries at least 500 and there’s always the foot tap and those annoying drumming fingers—quick, impatient phrases when nothing is said out loud. The grimace before a concession says more than the words of retreat; and eyes brimming with joyful tears are often more eloquent than a long speech. Unconscious body language and facial expressions can be useful weapons in a storyteller’s arsenal—ways to enhance OR undermine—words spoken by a character.
The body language between characters is also an opportunity to express unspoken thoughts and feelings. A glance between secret lovers is a romance fiction cliché, as is the false hostility that covers for secret intimacy in public.
It pays to look around and study, if quietly and from a distance, the silent behavior of strangers. I find all sorts of situations to be great laboratories of body language. I’ve imagined entire character backstories on the basis of observations—especially when I don’t speak the language or am too far away to hear.
One of my favorites labs is the line at my local Whole Foods. This started as my attempt to figure out which line to join as the individual lines feed into the next available cashier instead of the conventional choose a line and hope the cashier is fast and none of the patrons are coupon fanatics, arrangement. At Whole Foods the trick to a shorter wait is not the number of people on each of the queues but the number of shopper groups or duos versus individuals. As people wait on line together, heads bent to their phones or reading the Yoga magazines available for impulse shopping, it’s not always easy to see who is with whom and who happens to be shopping alone.
I usually pause for a minute to assess my chances at a short line and I look for subtle body tells. How close do people stand in relation to one another? If one person is bouncing or singing along with the music, is the other? People shopping together will often respond to the same music. Of course when a mom is singing her teenaged child might be shivering with embarrassment. That means they are shopping together—even if the kid can’t wait to get out of the store!
Next time you’re waiting on a line at a market, in an airport, outside a movie theater, try my body language game. It may inspire a non-verbal ‘character tell’ in your next story OR, it’ll just pass the time.