“Too Much Body Language,” She Said, Frowning.

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There’s a secret to getting a first novel published, and it has nothing to do with platform, connections, or the ebb and flow of publishing’s tides. Not that those things don’t matter. They do matter as secondary factors, but only if a prior condition is met: the novel itself needs to be irresistible.

I’ll give you an example from my years as a literary agent. I once received a manuscript that by every reasonable standard should have been rejected at first glance. Not only was the ms. full of handwritten corrections, it was actually printed on the back of previously used paper. Someone who couldn’t be bothered to submit a clean copy was unlikely to have written anything I could sell. I glanced at the first sentence, just to confirm my expectations. Then I read the next line, and the next. The voice was strong and authoritative, the voice of a writer who knows he’s got a story to tell and the chops to tell it.  I took the manuscript home with me and finished it that night. It was an extraordinarily entertaining Western about a Jewish peddler whose quest for the lost tribe of Israel takes him into Indian country: a sort of Jewish “Little Big Man.” It wasn’t perfect, but the story was like nothing I’d read before, the characters were fully realized and fascinating, and the scenes were wonderfully crafted. I called the writer the next day and offered representation.

In an industry that agrees on very little, there’s near unanimity on the best route to breaking into print. In a recent interview with Viking editor Tara Singh, I asked, “What’s the most important thing writers can do to help themselves get published?” This was her response:

I think the most important thing a writer can do is to write a really good book. This may not be a very helpful answer, but it really is the most important thing. Have others read your work, go to writers workshops, put it away and come back to it if you need to, but make it good.

Beyond that, I do think that publishers are paying much more attention to whether or not an author has an online presence. Is he or she active on facebook? Does he or she have thousands of twitter followers? That said, most writers won’t have that and I think that if you spend your time worrying about creating an amazing online presence rather than writing a really good book, you’d be spending your time poorly.”

So all I have to do is write an irresistible book, you may be thinking. Brilliant. And just how do I do that? But please note that I said irresistible, not perfect. No book ever emerges perfectly formed, like Athena from Zeus’s forehead. It’s a process, and good writers are grateful for the input of good editors. So you don’t have to write a perfect book, which I hope is reassuring, just an irresistible one. What makes a book irresistible is, for me, a combination of things: an original story; interesting characters who jump off the page; and the mastery of craft required to do that story justice.

Writers are expected to master that craft on their own dime, not the publisher’s. For that reason, I’m inaugurating an occasional series of craft tips for fiction writers, many drawn from the writing courses I teach online at Next Level Workshops. These are  not intended as proclamations from on high or any sort of writing orthodoxy, but rather as distillations of lessons I’ve learned over 30 years as a writer, literary agent and editor. I hope you find them useful.

LESSON ONE: BEATS VS. DEADBEATS

A beat, for the purpose of this discussion, is everything in a passage of dialogue except the spoken words and speaker attribution (he said, she asked, etc.) That would include bits of description, interior monologue, action,  and the nonverbal parts of conversations, aka body language.

Dialogue needs occasional beats for rhythm and to bring in other dimensions of the scene. How many beats a writer uses is a matter of personal style. Stretches of straight dialogue can be useful to allow readers to really hear the characters’ voices in their heads without constant interruption. But if you overdo it, you impoverish the scene, you take away its physicality.  The effect for the reader is like listening to a TV with no picture.

A deadbeat is a beat that brings nothing to the party, or at most a measly can of beer. If a beat doesn’t contribute something meaningful to the scene, beyond what the dialogue itself conveys,  find a beat that will.

It’s my contention that most—not all, but most—descriptions of body language fall into the category of deadbeats. They’re the fallback beat, the first ones most writers resort to. And to some extent they’re necessary; without them, we’d miss some nuances, especially when the characters’ expression or body language contradicts what they’re saying. The trouble arises when writers overuse or misuse them as a means of telling what the character feels in the guise of showing.  Like weeds, deadbeats tend to crowd out beats that would actually enhance the garden.

It’s easiest to show with an example. Here’s a short passage in three variations.

“I can’t do this anymore,” he said.

“Suit yourself,” she said.

The lines of dialogue are evocative, but it’s not clear how the speakers mean them or what’s going on underneath the words. Suppose you, as the writer, want to keep the dialogue but add to it. If you’ve fallen into the habit of reaching first for body language, your next version might read like this.

“I can’t do this anymore,” he said, frowning.

She waved an airy hand. “Suit yourself.”

More information is conveyed, to be sure, but at a price. You’re now basically telling the reader how the characters feel, instead of letting them feel it themselves.  And you’re not adding a lot. We already know the male speaker is unhappy, so “frowning” is a deadbeat. Her “airy wave” is a bit better, but her line itself is already dismissive. Another deadbeat, this one bearing a measly can of beer.

So you cross out those lines and reach further afield for an image that will illuminate, and you come up with a third variation.

“I can’t do this anymore,” he said.

She kept her eyes on her magazine, though she wasn’t turning any pages. The room was silent but for the faint, mournful whistle of a freight train.

“Suit yourself,” she said at last.

 

That mournful train whistle conveys a sense of melancholy, and the mention of a train suggests a crossroad. The woman’s pretense of reading shows the disconnect between two people who seem once to have been connected. Suddenly these spare lines of dialogue are imbued with a sense of parting and finality; and readers will feel it.

Capisce?

This piece was adapted from one of my online Next Level  workshop “Revising Fiction.” I will be offering “Revising Fiction”  starting August 13, 2015. Eight writers max, very intensive. (See testimonials) Applicants are asked to submit a writing sample. For more information, email me  at next.level.workshop@gmail.com

About Barbara Rogan

I am the author of nine novels, including A DANGEROUS FICTION, published by Viking and Penguin. I'm also a former editor and literary agent. Currently I teach fiction writing on my online school, www.nextlevelworkshop.com.
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22 Responses to “Too Much Body Language,” She Said, Frowning.

  1. deniz says:

    Great, succinct, example, Barbara – as I work on my December/January X… Love the measly can of beer. Will try to being more to each dialogue party!

  2. Sheila Hudson says:

    Hi Barbara,
    The three examples really showed the difference between the beats and the deadbeats. So now I have “No deadbeats” to add to “DE DE” for the little voice in my head while writing.
    Sheila

  3. Bob Rozakis says:

    Hi, Barbara —
    Without the beats, the two lines of dialogue could be interpreted in other, completely different ways. Let us suppose that the two characters were out jogging instead:
    “I can’t do this anymore,” he said.
    She glanced to her left and realized he had stopped, panting, bent over with his hands on his knees.
    “Suit yourself” was all he heard as she continued down the path.

    Bob

    PS: I really enjoyed getting the advance look at “A Dangerous Fiction.” Your readers here should put it on their “must-read” list.

    • Bob, loved your take on those lines! Your beats cast a completely different light on the dialogue. This is sort of fun. I invite other readers to come up with their own beats to alter the meaning of those lines of dialogue.

      Thanks for the good word about A DANGEROUS FICTION, and the notes. Friends with privileges indeed! I don’t remember anyone else flagging that, and now it’s too late…for this edition.

  4. Ella Quinn says:

    Very good post. Sometimes it’s hard to find the balance.

  5. I’d actually say that the issue here is not too much body language — it’s more a matter of the information being “too on the nose”. (Telling the reader too much and not providing any subtext or layering.)

    The issue is that more needs to be going on under the surface of the words.

    If you revise this so there is more, the interest level goes much higher, as in:

    “I can’t do this any more.” He slanted a glance over to the passenger side of the car, but the night lighting made it impossible to judge her reaction. Had it been too much of a whine? Too needy? He rubbed a hand over the steering wheel, forced himself to wait for her answer.

    “Suit yourself.”

    Great. More evasions from her. But was there a trace of nervous under her words. Dammit. He should have waited until they were home to start this.

    Now we have more going on in a character’s viewpoint (and head) and lots more going on with what the character really wants from his words — it’s not just dialogue to put in dialogue.

    There’s tons more body language here, too, but it’s now serving the purpose of revealing subtext. To me, it’s the layering that matters the most. Without that, it’s all flat cardboard.

    • Hi Shannon, thanks for jumping in. It’s instructive to see how many different stories can be derived from a few bare lines of dialogue. Your lines read nicely and I agree with you on the importance of layering; but for me, one layer I usually omit is the very one you featured here: explication, through interior monologue, of the characters’ thoughts and feelings. That is, I write them sometimes, because they’re useful, like the lines on lined paper; but then I usually take them out. It seems to me to be filling in the dots excessively, when readers are perfectly capable of filling them in for themselves and in fact need to do so. If we explain everything, we leave no room for the reader’s imagination and participation in the story.

      But this is a matter of taste, not right and wrong. I find that my writing grows sparer the older I get.

  6. It is a matter of taste. And a lot of folks go for sparse internal dialogue. I personally like to get to know characters more in books I read and write. But it’s like a soup — you want enough seasoning without going overboard.

  7. I would add that body language in a beat is the place most writers get in trouble because so much body language is over-used. If I read, “Her heart pounded,” or “the hair on the back of his neck rose,” I have to put the book down.

    • I’m glad you didn’t say you’d “throw the book across the room;” simply closing it is so much more polite (and less cliched.) Yes, those phrases are by now total cliches. As Shannon points out, they’re the first ones that come to us because they’re so familiar. Fine for first drafts, but no one else should ever have to read them.

  8. I’d call those phrases cliche, instead of saying it’s too much (or over used) body language. The trouble is that folks go for the first thing that pops into mind — that’s fine. However, you then have to edit and dig deeper into your character to get a less cliche action/reaction. Actors have to learn to do the same thing.

  9. Ksenia Anske says:

    Thank you for tweeting this post to me! Loved it. Though I simply “feel” the dialogue beat, don’t know if it’s right or wrong, but it seems to flow best when I feel it.

  10. Great post–I am so glad I found your link to it on twitter (it had gotten buried, so apologies for seeing it so late). The stock emotion description is something that is such a struggle, and the over-reliance on crutch gestures exactly why we wrote the ET. Thanks for pointing me to this! 🙂

    Angela

    • Thanks, Angela! Sounds like we’re on the same page. Glad we met on Twitter, too. I’m new on Twitter and find that my writing now chokes off after around 140 characters…hoping that will pass!

  11. Jen Donohue says:

    Ah, dialogue tags. Some are evocative some inspire groans, and sometimes you don’t realize the difference until you’ve read out loud, or until somebody whose opinion really matters to you has your manuscript in their hands.

    Great post!

    • I generally prefer the invisible ones: said, asked, etc. Readers register the information about who’s speaking without retaining the tag, so dialogue plays seamlessly in their minds. In theory, anyway.

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