Monday, October 24, 2011

Kinesics - Using Body Language in your Novels

Kinesics is the interpretation of body language i.e. the movement of the body as a whole or any part of the body. The term was first used in 1952 by Ray Birdwhistell, an anthropologist, who argued that all movements of the body have meaning and that these non-verbal forms of language can be analysed.

Of course we’re all aware of how different facial expressions can reveal a person’s feelings. There are seven universally recognized emotions shown through facial expressions: fear, anger, surprise, contempt, disgust, happiness, and sadness. I would suggest there are many more – concentration, desire, joy, frustration and confusion are just a few that come to mind. As writers, it’s our job to show our characters’ feelings – not by statements such as ‘She felt confused’ but by showing her confusion as in ‘Her nose wrinkled and the crease between her brows deepened as she looked from Sam to John and then back again.’

Eyes and mouth probably play the largest part in showing feelings – contrast the widening eyes of interest with the rolling eyes of frustration, and the tight-lipped smile with the pursed lips. Eye-contact (or lack of it) can also reveal a whole range of different feelings.

The movement of the head as a whole is important too. Nodding signifies agreement, slow head nodding shows attentiveness, fast head nodding can show impatience, and there’s a world of difference between the head held high and the head down.

The position of the arms can signify different things, and of course the hands have their own language, whether it’s clenched fists, cracking knuckles or fidgeting with a pen or wineglass.

Leg positions can sometimes be influenced by gender. Men and women do tend to sit differently. Partly due to clothing, partly due to sexual differences, men naturally exhibit more open leg positions than women, but there are still accepted interpretations of leg position. The figure-4 leg cross with the supporting leg being crossed just above the knee by the ankle of the or lower calf of the crossing leg signifies independence. With a hand clamped over the ankle of the crossing leg, it can reveal stubbornness since the hand produces a locked position, reflecting the mood of the person.

Even the position of people in relation to each other can be interesting. Sitting opposite another person can create a feeling of confrontation, which is intensified if there is a table of desk between you and the other person. Of course, sitting opposite across a table can be fine for lovers who gaze into each other’s eyes!

Studying kinesics can help us to use the right expressions, gestures, movement or body positions to reveal the emotions of our characters.

One the best articles I have read on the subject can be found at This gives lots of examples, but also points out that body-language is not an exact science, and that a single body language signal cannot be considered a reliable indicator.


  1. Body language is a great tool to use in writing. When I first started out, I found a website that had great examples to show different emotions. Unfortunately, I can't find it anymore so I need to compile a list of new ones.

  2. Great post, Paula. Definitely worth a repeat study.
    We should compile a list, have it here on the blog, and keep adding to it Jen, what do you think?

    I read several sources about how to tell when someone is lying. I use the consensus opinions in my WIP. Given the disclaimer that individuality trumps herd-instinct, I'd bet these 'tells' run true in families. And I'd bet the general archetype is more true than not.

  3. Thanks for sharing this valuable information. As a writer, I really appreciate any insights I can get from other seasoned writers! I've bookmarked this page so I can come back to it often! Thanks Paula!

  4. Excellent article. I remember taking an English course and we talked extensively on this subject--and I appreciate the refresher! Cheers, Jenn.

  5. Jen - I've found good sites in the past but forgotten to bookmark them - so annoying when you can't find them again!

    Ana - good idea about adding useful sites in the sidebar of HWH. Interesting about the 'signals' which show someone is lying!

    Susan - thanks for visiting, hope you'll come back often, as we're starting a whole new 'theme' next week with lots of blogs about writing and publishing.

    Jenn - glad you enjoyed it, it's a fascinating subject once you really get into it.

  6. Thanks for that fascinating post - it's good to be reminded of how much body language can give us away and add to characterisation!

  7. Fabulous post, Paula.

    Body language is a great way to do that 'show not tell' we're supposed to master in our writing.

    I've had heroines twirl their hair, bite their lips, nibble their nails, etc.

    Arms folded and raised eyebrows are ones I tend to overuse!

  8. PAULA--I haven't seen any blogs on body language--although I'm sure there have been some. But it's of great importance in writing characters. In dialogue, if the author doesn't add some kind of body language, the read might imagine two stick figure talking to each other.
    I've studied this some, and your post is so good in pointing out that while it's not an exact science, we can read people by their body language. I love to watch people--if they don't know I'm watching them.
    Good job on a timely topic, Paula.

  9. Good reminders! I have a bad tendency to use the same motions over and over again (they usually get cleaned up in revision), so it's good to get a little nudge to notice these the first time through.

    Thanks for the info.

  10. Thanks for all your comment :-)

    Rosemary - I tend to know only the most obvious signals, but it's definitely worth study for characterisation, as you say.

    Debra - I think we all have our favourites - mine characters also tend to raise their eyebrows too much!

    Celia - people watching is great fun, isn't it?

    Tess - I'm sure we all use our favourite gestures in our first draft - I do try to check for over-use, but not sure I always catch every repeat!

  11. Great post, Paula. Body language is a fascinating subject.

    Jennifer - is the site you were thinking of called The Bookshelf Muse? It's a fabulous thesaurus reference: emotion, settings, color/texture, symbolism. You can find it here:

  12. Thanks for the link to the bookshelfmuse site, Penny - have just added it to our new page of Helpful Writing Hints!

  13. What a great idea I will use this in my novels. thanks.