Showing your Business

There is an old, old joke that goes something like this (and apologies in advance because I totally suck at these) – but there is a point to this, so bear with me.

Back in World War Two, British authorities captured an Italian spy. Naturally, the spy was trussed up to where he could barely wiggle his toes and taken to the nearest Intelligence facility, where they hurried to find someone who’d be able to understand the flood of Italian they expected.

Instead, the interrogation drew a complete blank. The spy was obviously frightened, but not one word could they get out of him. Finally, the Italian expert arrived.

After hearing the summary of the interrogation so far, the expert walked into the room, unlocked the spy’s handcuffs and made sure he could move his arms, then walked out with the comment, “You won’t have any trouble now.”

So, yes. Italians have the reputation for talking with their hands but they’re not the only ones. If you doubt, watch any conversation and observe the gestures and the body language. I guarantee you’ll be able to figure out a good deal of what’s going on without hearing a single word.

Yes, even office conversations where neither participant looks away from their computer.

I don’t remember what the estimate is, but it’s well above 50% of all our communication is non-verbal and a good chunk of it comes through body language – something writers, particularly newer writers, tend to forget.

When you’ve got a chunk of dialog with maybe some he said, she said tags and a few different words for “said” for color, you’re missing all the extra information that comes with what playwrights call “business”. This is the stuff that isn’t explicitly scripted but is sometimes tagged along with a piece of dialog to indicate that the character should do something to indicate a particular emotional reaction.

The actor will use some kind of body language that fits with the character as they understand them to signal the emotion to their audience. A fluttery female character might fidget or play with the hem of her dress. A more assertive character might stand and pace the stage or play with one of the props.

We writers can’t do this, so instead we describe our characters doing them to show their emotion. And yes, it’s all about emotion. If you just say “X was sad” or “X was happy” or “X was devastated” or whatever, it’s meaningless. Readers won’t feel that. By describing the movements and body language you’re more likely to trigger the emotions that go with it, particularly if you include the emotional marker changes: someone who’s flushed is usually angry or embarrassed. An angry person is likely to be flushed, leaning forward whether they’re standing or sitting. Movement will tend to be more abrupt, and they’ll speak faster and bite off their words. They might clench fists or make rude gestures depending on the kind of person they are. If they’re talking to someone else, there’s a good chance they’ll do the aggressive finger pointing thing.

Someone who’s embarrassed will also have a flushed face, but the other anger tells won’t be there. Instead, if they’re not particularly assertive, they’ll likely hunch up a bit as if they’re trying to make themselves less of a target. They may try to pretend that nothing’s wrong, but their movements won’t be as sure as usual. If you’re in this character’s point of view, mentioning the heat from their face is always a good call: blushing really does make your face feel hot. Sometimes your ears and neck as well.

This blog has a nice collation of physical tells for a bunch of emotions – and for extra credit mixing the tells a bit can be used to show mixed emotion without mentioning feelings.

To finish, here’s a snip from something I started ages ago and may never take up again. The setting is irrelevant – look at the emotions that are shown by the actions I describe.


He froze, staring. His heart tightened, every beat threatening to burst through his ribs. “Mircea?” His voice broke on the name. His brother, blinded then buried alive, yet he sat here among the other gray-clothed men, looking like a more handsome version of Dracula himself: dark hair loose to his shoulders, his mustache neatly trimmed, and a smile on his face as he spoke to the fair-haired man at his side. His face was less angular than Dracula’s, less hardened by experience and time. He wore the special lenses — glasses — the moderns used to improve eyesight.

Mircea — this could be no-one else — started, looked up. The flimsy chair shot back when he stood. “Vlad?” He wasn’t steady when he moved away from the table, stumbling over the metal legs of the chair.

Instinct, more than anything else, propelled Dracula forward. Though his legs seemed leaden, he and Mircea came together in the middle of the room. He embraced his brother fiercely. “Dear Lord, to see you alive and well… You are well?” His voice choked, and his vision blurred.

Whether well or not, there was no lack of strength in Mircea’s arms. “Better than well, little brother.” His voice, too, was strained. “To see you again… Father and I… we feared for you so.”

Some small part of Dracula’s mind noted the omission of their brother Radu, and his eyes burned afresh. The moderns must have told Mircea of their brother’s treachery. “And rightly,” he growled, “But I survived well enough.” He would not think of that. Not now, not when he had so much to celebrate. “Enough of that, now. Tell me of yourself, brother. I heard of your exploits only amid curses.” He would not — could not — show weakness in front of so many unknowns, so many moderns. Better to turn to a safer topic.

Mircea’s laugh was balm to his soul: Dracula could not remember the last time he had heard anyone laugh with such lack of care. “I imagine so — I took great pleasure tweaking Ottoman


  1. Thanks for this, Kate. This is very helpful for us newbie writers.

    Of course it will become obsolete once we all start communicating exclusively via emoticon. I’m pretty sure that will happen sometime in 2016. I typed that with a wry smirk.

  2. True story: My college roommate was half Italian. When she would get all enthused about something, talking so fast we couldn’t get a word in edgewise, we would just grasp her wrists. Sudden, total, astonished silence 🙂 She really couldn’t talk with her hands still.

  3. I start gesticulating whenever I can’t think of the right word to say. It’s gotten to the point people start copying my gestures and saying “Ummmm”.

  4. I really like “The Emotion Thesaurus” and its sister books; they help flesh out body cues. (Although, like any good reference book, one inevitably find themselves asking “So you have embarrassment, but why didn’t you put bashful in there, too? And you have regret, but not distaste!”)

  5. Good thoughts… I went back and looked at the story I’m rewriting (I’ll worry about nano-story after nano.) and realized how little gesticulation I’d been putting in. So “Aha!” moment… this time before I’m so deep into the re-write/revision that I have to add a completely new round to it.

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