Writing Body Language To “Show, Don’t Tell” (and definitely not LOOK)

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This lesson is invaluable, so read carefully.

Wait, does invaluable mean no value or lots of value? Quick internet search… Okay.

Yeah, there’s gold in today’s lesson.

Using my unreleased manuscript An Angel On Her Shoulder, I am showing you my techniques for reworking a story into a more readable, more enjoyable piece. It’s 45+ lessons in about 45 days. (To start at Chapter 1, click HERE.)

To view it best, bring up the two versions in different windows and view them side by side to see what was changed.

Then give me your thoughts in the comment section.

BODY LANGUAGE

In this chapter you’ll see a few dialogue tags (she said, he asked) but mainly you’ll see those items replaced by beats – little actions the characters do.

And occasionally you’ll see… nothing. Because we don’t always need a tag or a beat. If two people are talking and one stopped, the next dialogue belongs to the other person in the scene.

AND CRUTCH WORDS

Also, a way to find and deal with your crutch words. Didn’t know you had those? You do.

Read the chapter and let’s meet below to discuss.

 


Chapter 34 “FINAL”

“Have you lost your mind?!”

Mallory stood in the middle of the kitchen, her hands on her hips. You could say she was somewhat resistant to the suggestion of leaving our home in the middle of a hurricane.

“It’s a good idea.” I said, rubbing my eyes. “We can get on the road before everybody else, go to Atlanta, and rest easy. We can ride it out from a nice safe hotel room in Georgia.”

“With all we—” She turned and grabbed the remote, and turning up the volume on Sophie’s cartoon and obscuring our conversation. “With everything that’s been happening to us, you want us to drive through a hurricane and expose ourselves that way?”

“No. We have a few days before the hurricane gets here, so we evacuate early—before everybody else in Tampa gets the same idea.”

“But the governor hasn’t even announced any evacuations yet.” Mallory put a hand to her forehead. “Just voluntary things on the coast.”

“And he may not order mandatory evacuations.” I nodded. “If he doesn’t, we’ll be holed up in Atlanta in a nice hotel eating room service for no reason. But.” I took a deep breath and looked into her eyes. “If he says boo, three million people around the Tampa Bay area are gonna hit the highway at the same time. They’ll start wrecking into each other in the rain and high winds.” I watched her expression. She knew that part was true. “They’ll clog any northbound road until everything is bumper to bumper, and then that’s where we’ll be—stuck on an interstate that’s not moving, while who knows what comes for us.

Mallory shook her head. “Which is why we should stay. We have our generator, and you filled all the gas cans, right?”

“Yes, but—”

“And I filled the freezer. We have what we need to ride this out, in a house that was built do to just that.”

She was right. We built our house after hurricane Andrew, under the latest hurricane construction codes.

I leaned on the counter, exhausted. “Honey, you are 100% right about all of that.”

Her mouth fell open. “Then why . . . ”

I peered at Sophie. She was wholly engaged in her cartoon. “Because of that.” I nodded at our daughter. “Because of her. I think this is the latest part of the next tragedy.”

“What, a hurricane?” Mallory was incredulous. “They’re sending a hurricane after our daughter now?”

“No. I don’t know. I don’t know how any of this works.” I sighed. “Probably not. But I didn’t think they’d send an old man in his truck to mow us down in the parking lot of a winery, either.”

“That’s a pretty big difference. A man in a truck compared to a giant hurricane.”

“It is.” I slouched onto the counter and folded my arms. “So maybe they didn’t create the hurricane, maybe they just nudged it in our direction.”

“Maybe they want to scare us.” She threw her hands up. “Make us run into the open where they can get us a little easier!”

“Maybe!” I pounded the counter. “Maybe they do.” I glanced at Sophie and lowered my voice. “Maybe they just want to attack under the distractions that the hurricane will cause. Maybe that makes things easier for them somehow.” I looked down, shaking my head. “But they are coming for us one way or the other.”

Malory swallowed, kneading her hands together. “How do you know?”

“Do you think they’ve just quit?” I glared at her. “Do you think you can lay your head on your pillow every night for the rest of your life and think that it’s all over? Because I sure don’t. I think they’re coming for us. I think it’s only a matter of time.”

Mallory stood silent, the fear growing in her eyes.

“This hurricane,” I said, “It gives them one more opportunity to try.”

“Okay.” Her voice was a whisper. “So what do we do?”

I took a deep breath and hugged my wife, pulling her close. “I think we draw them out. I think we move before they’re ready. Maybe take the attack to them somehow.”

She turned and flung my hands off her. “This is crazy. You’re crazy!”

The phone rang. It was a good excuse for a temporary cease fire. Mallory answered it, then looked away and held it out for me. It was Tyree.

“I think we should get together, partner,” he said.

“I agree.” I stepped to the hallway. “Where are you? Back in Melbourne?”

“No, I stayed in town since our meeting. I’m in Tampa.”

“Then come to the house.” I eyed Mallory and gave him the address. His presence would help a lot—for Mallory and for me. Tyree agreed to come over by dinnertime. That was perfect. “We’ll see you then. And Tyree?”

“Yeah?”

“Pack a bag.”

“We going somewhere?” he asked.

“Maybe.”

I hung up the phone. Mallory had gone upstairs. I made sure Sophie had another cartoon to watch, then I went up to our bedroom. Mallory stood by the bed, her arms wrapped around herself, staring at the TV. Huge red bands swirled over Florida in the latest weather update.

“Tyree’s coming over in a few hours,” I said.

“Okay,” she said, not taking her eyes off the screen.

“Look, let’s get prepared, either way. Maybe we’ll stay, maybe we’ll leave. But let’s pack up and get ready, whatever we decide. Okay?”

Her eyes remained fixed on the TV.

I sighed, and turned, heading back downstairs. I had to put the propane tanks and gas cans in the back of my car, and start digging through our camping gear for our little propane stove. I paused at the bottom of the staircase, my hand on the banister, peeking into our bedroom.

Mallory pulled some clothes and a suitcase out of the closet.

I smiled and continued to the garage.

The Navigator had four big seats plus a bench seat in the very back. When folded down, the bench seat disappeared and created a large storage area. The propane tanks and gas cans took up a fair amount of the space, but since they had been procured from the boat we used to have, they were designed to not take up much room.

As a result, a lot of suitcases and coolers could also fit alongside, leaving plenty of room in the rest of the car for strollers, computers, snacks—whatever it took to keep the peace on a long drive and get away from the looming storm.

The rain came down in bands, whipping through the oaks with the rushing wind. Even in the garage, I managed to get pretty wet while packing the car. The low roar of the unstopping wind was an irritating reminder of the coming hurricane.

Hurricane winds are unlike any other sound a person will ever hear, and once they hear it, they’ll never forget it. TV stations always describe things like a Kansas tornado as a sounding like a train. It’s like that when the hurricane is almost on top of you. But for days before that it’s the nonstop winds. They never fade at night, they never go away during the day, they just serve as a ghoulish reminder that death is coming. Standing in my garage I’d swear there was a long line of cars going down the street, the drone of many tires on asphalt making their way down our driveway—but there are no cars. It’s just the wind, howling and battering its way through the tree tops, and it doesn’t go away until the hurricane passes.

I slammed the tailgate shut. All I had left to do was put in was the suitcases. I secretly hoped that Mallory might have them all packed when I went back inside.

A light flashed in my eyes. A brown sedan rolled up the driveway in the pouring rain. When it got closer, I could make out a face.

Tyree.

I glanced at the clock on the garage wall. Right on time.


Original Chapter 34, An Angel On Her Shoulder

 

“Have you lost your mind?!”

You could say my wife was somewhat resistant to the suggestion of leaving our home in the middle of a hurricane.

“It’s a good idea,” I offered. “We can get on the road before everybody else, go to Atlanta, and rest easy. We can ride it out from a hotel room, safe and sound in the middle of Georgia.”

“With all we have going on,” she began; then she stopped. She grabbed the remote and turned up the volume on a cartoon for Savvy, obscuring our conversation. “With all the things that have been happening to us, do you really think it’s a good idea to now go out in the middle of a hurricane and expose ourselves that way?”

“I think it’s a good idea to evacuate before everybody else in Tampa gets the same idea.”

“But the governor hasn’t even announced any evacuations yet,” Michele protested. “Just voluntary things in the coast. Old people and families with small kids, to move inland to shelters.”

“And he may not order mandatory evacuations,” I said. “If he doesn’t, we’ll be holed up in Atlanta in a nice hotel eating room service for no reason.”

“But,” I continued, “if he says boo, three million people around the Tampa Bay area are gonna hit the highway, all at the same time. And once they all start wrecking into each other from the rain and high winds. You won’t be able to get gas or even drive on the highway.” I watched her expression. She knew that part was true. “You know how it is; in a light summer shower we have crashes at all the usual places: Malfunction Junction, US-19, highway 60 by the airport; they turn into parking lots every day at rush hour. They’re worse in the rain, and they’ll be catastrophic in a hurricane.”

“Which is why we should stay!” Michele exclaimed. “We have our generator, and you filled all the gas cans, right?”

“Yes, but…”

She cut me off. “And I filled the freezer. We have propane, water… We have what we need to ride out the storm right here. This house was built to do that.”

She was right about that. We built after hurricane Andrew, so our house had all the latest greatest hurricane safety construction. And when we did the addition, that part of the house was even safer.

“Honey, you are 100% right about all of that.”

She looked exasperated. “Then why…?”

I looked over at Savvy. She was wholly engaged in her cartoon.

“Because of that,” I said nodding my head in the direction of our daughter. “Because of her. I think this is the latest part of the next tragedy.”

Michele was incredulous. “What, a hurricane? They’re sending a hurricane after our daughter now?”

“No,” I said. “Probably not. But I didn’t think they’d send an old man in his truck to mow us down in the parking lot of a winery, either.”

“That’s a pretty big difference,” She offered, placing her hands on her hips. “A man in a truck compared to a giant hurricane.”

“It is,” I said. “I agree. So maybe they didn’t create it, the hurricane. Maybe they just nudged it a little in our direction.”

“Maybe they want to scare us into running out into the open where they can get us a little easier!” Michele yelled.

“Maybe!” I yelled back. “Maybe they do.” I lowered my voice. Savvy would hear us shouting and come looking. “Maybe they just want to attack under the distractions that the hurricane will cause. Maybe that makes things easier for them somehow. But they are coming for us one way or the other, that much I’m sure of.”

“How do you know?” she asked.

“Do you think they’ve just quit?”

She hesitated.

“Do you think you can lay your head on your pillow every night for the rest of your life and think that it’s all over? Because I sure don’t. I think they’re coming for us. I think it’s only a matter of time.”

Michele let the words sink in.

“This hurricane,” I said, “It gives them one more opportunity to try.”

“So what do we do?” she asked.

“I think we draw them out,” I said. “I think we move before they’re ready.”

I put my hands on her shoulders. “Maybe take the attack to them somehow.”

She turned and flung my hands off. “This is crazy. You’re crazy!”

The phone rang. It was a good excuse for a temporary cease fire. She answered it, then looked away and held it out for me.

It was Tyree.

“I think we should get together, partner,” Tyree said.

“I agree,” I answered. “Where are you? Back in Melbourne?”

“No, I stayed in town since our meeting,” Tyree said. “I’m in Tampa.”

“Then come to the house,” I said, and gave him the address. He agreed to come over by dinnertime. That was fine. “We’ll see you then. And Tyree?”

“Yeah?”

“Pack a bag.”

“We going somewhere?” he asked.

“Maybe.”

I hung up the phone. Michele had gone upstairs. I made sure Savvy had another cartoon to watch, then I went up to our bedroom. She was watching the hurricane update on TV.

“Tyree’s coming over in a few hours,” I said.

“Okay,” she said, not looking at me.

“Look,” I began, “let’s just get prepared, either way. Maybe we’ll stay, maybe we’ll leave. But let’s pack up and get ready, whatever we decide. Okay?”

She stared at the TV.

I sighed, and turned, heading back downstairs. I had to put the propane tanks and gas cans in the back of the Navigator, and start looking through our camping gear for the little propane stove… As I paused at the bottom of the staircase, my hand on the banister, I peeked back up into our bedroom.

Michele was getting out some clothes to pack.

I smiled and headed out to the garage.

The Navigator had four big seats plus a bench seat in the very back. When folded down, the bench seat disappeared and created a large storage area. The propane tanks and gas cans took up a fair amount of the space, but since they had been procured from the boat we used to have, they were designed to not take up much room. They had a tall, rectangular footprint; not short and round like regular gas cans. As a result, a lot of suitcases and coolers would also fit alongside of them, leaving plenty of room in the rest of the car for strollers, computers, snacks…

The rain was really coming down now, so I managed to get pretty wet while packing the car. All I had left to do was put in was the suitcases. I secretly hoped that Michele might have them all packed when I went back inside.

A light flashed in my eyes. It was a brown sedan coming up the driveway in the pouring rain. When it got closer, I could make out a face.

Tyree. I looked at the clock on the garage wall.

Right on time.


ANALYSIS

Tag, your manuscript is it!

Dialogue tags: those little phrases that follow a section of dialogue.

“Run,” he said.

“Why?” she asked.

“There’s a T-Rex coming!” He exclaimed.

“Oh,” she said warily.

Okay?

One of my favorite things to do is to wait until a new author writes  “Why?” she asked and then say Lose the tag, we know she asked – the question mark gave it away.

It’s fun for me.

Most dialogue tags aren’t needed.

Try to use as few as possible in your story. Readers skip over them anyway, so if they aren’t even reading them, why put them in?

Beats can easily be overdone.

Add your beats and let the MS rest, then read it out loud. That staccato sound you hear is bad beats. Add to them or scale them back. Vary the length and rhythm. Put a tag back in.

Sentences that sounds the same or have the same rhythm become dull to readers, and a dull reader puts your story down, never to return. They may not even know why, and it might be a great story otherwise. More on that in a second.

You can do nothing, too.

If two people are talking and one stopped, the next person talking is the other person in the scene. Readers will get that.

A combination of beats and tags and nothings will get your conversation across just fine.

– as long as the convo is to the point and interesting – but think about what actions are used when speaking, and what those actions say to the reader.

Some examples are when

  • Mallory puts her hands on her hips. In the kitchen no less. What’s that say? Did your mom ever do that?
  • She puts a hand to her forehead. Which means…

See?

There are even lists you can get from the internet. Check them out and use some of the suggested beats for expressing what your character is feeling.

What about when Mallory won’t look at Doug when he’s talking to her in the bedroom? Been there!

LOOK – AT MY CRUTCH WORDS!

One more thing – the word look, or any of its evil friends.

We all have our own crutch words – words or phrases that we use too much throughout the course of a chapter or story.

For example, in my head I know what I mean when I say “He gave her a look.” I’m prone to saying things like “He gave her a look.” Like when I did something wrong as a kid, my mother would give me a look.

In my writer head, I know what I mean when I write that. You may not. Odds are my reader certainly doesn’t.

Now, if I write that my mom put her hands on her hip and raised an eyebrow and waved a wooden spoon at me while she looked at me, that sends a whoooooole other message than just “look.”

A look can be anything. That spoon wagging thing can’t.

So “look” is one of my crutch words. I have characters look out the window or look at the ground or look at each other all the time.

When you read a random chapter out loud to yourself, you will hear your crutch words. If you don’t spot them all yourself—and you wont—give an early chapter to somebody else and ask them to read it with the specific intention of finding words that you repeat too often. (Odds are, within your first five chapters you have established what your crutch words are going to be.)

And once you decide “look” is the devil – because it is – and you spend a week eradicating it from a 100,000 word manuscript as though pulling pieces of broken glass from your eyes (which you’d rather do at that point), you will replace it with glimpse, peer, eyed – until you want to heave your keyboard off the nearest bridge. THEN whenever you go to type “look” in the future, you will flinch like the keyboard gave you an electric shock. And you will type PEER.

In fact, you will type peer so much that it’s a new crutch word.

Yep. If you’ve been watching, you’ve seen lots of glances in this “final” version of my story. That task remains to be done. (It’s final, not final-final.)

So here’s how you get around that particular dog chasing its tail.

You can go online and you can find lists of words to use for substitutes. Synonyms are readily available, but some writer-oriented websites will have words to use instead of “look” or “walk” (stepped, crept) or whatever crutch word you are trying to avoid.

But before you do that, just read some of your manuscript out loud. One chapter will usually do it, three at most. And while you are thinking that takes a lot of time, it’s cheaper than paying an editor to do it and it’s an easy way to avoid bad reviews because your book read amateurish.

Now do a keyword search for the offenders and write down how many times each one appears. I put my list right at the top of my manuscript to keep me humble:

  • Suddenly 15
  • Smile 85
  • Look 445 (told ya)
  • Glance 41
  • Peer 16
  • Shook (head) 34
  • Sigh 32
  • Nod 67
  • just 415
  • went 152
  • shrug 10
  • wheeled 5
  • scene 14
  • chuckle 10

My beta readers will attest to this. And that list was before we started the editing! Now there are fewer looks but more glances. Ugh.

If the word “look” appears 15 times in 100,000 words, you are probably fine.

But

You still want to scroll through all 15 instances to make sure all 15 aren’t in the same paragraph, or ten times on one page! Just because it doesn’t occur very often overall doesn’t mean it’s still not too much where it does appear.

Then, go through and decide you’re going to replace half or more of the hated crutches with synonyms.

You’re going to spend a few hours with your brow furrowed at your screen while you try to figure out whether “peer” or “scanned” or “searched” is a proper replacement for the next time you used “look.”

And believe me, after an hour or two of doing that in a single day, you won’t know any good replacements for anything.

So don’t try to do it all at once.

(“Was” also needs this process, but for different reasons. Was is Satan because it’s less actiony than another verb. That, we’ll attack another time.)

Also, you may run into “staccato sentences” like we discussed above when we were replacing dialogue tags with beats. You can end up with lots of paragraphs or sentences that all start the same way. (That happens even when you aren’t replacing tags, by the way. A lot.)

What I recommend if you have three phases that all sound very similar or all start the same way…

She ran asxiu yhdscm nd fvpiqur hfmnj sdbvpiu egfkjbdn s fpoiryue wt kjnsc mcznvd

He looked xiu yhdscm nd fvpiqur hfmnj sdbvpiu eg

Jonah chuckled xiu yhdscm nd fvpiqur hfmnj sdbvpiu egfkjbdn s fpoiryue wt kjnsc mcznvd hjsfpo ueiw l ksdjgflmv no isdfjoiw

I sighed. Xiu yhdscm nd fvpiqur 

… simply leave one third alone, rewrite one third, and reverse one third, more or less, until the staccato section stops being staccattoey.

So instead of “Jonah chuckled” you start with “Chuckling, Jonah… went and did whatever Jonah did.

With the next one, rewriting it might just mean taking the second half of the sentence and putting it first.

And of course leaving one third alone, you don’t have to do anything with those.

So those are two tips – and neither one is fun or easy.

But!

Sometimes those are the little things that a reader might not be able to articulate as to why your story wasn’t as sharp or engaging as they were expecting.

These are the things that take it from less polished to more polished. And they’re reeeeeally dull to do.

In fact, they are absolute hell the first time you do it, a little less hellish the second time, and by the third or fourth time you do it – as in the 3rd or 4th story you write after learning about them – you just kind of get used to it.

This is the process of building your writer muscles. No pain, no gain.

Now:

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your humble host

Let me have your comments. The next chapters will post tomorrow but they will ALL come down shortly after February 15, so don’t dawdle!

You are readers, too. Your input will shape the final product. Be honest.

Share and reblog these! Your friends need to know this stuff, too.

Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the amazingly great sci fi action thriller “The Navigators.” Click HERE to get your copy of The Navigators – $2.99 or FREE on Kindle Unlimited!

Available in paperback and audio book, too!

 

16 thoughts on “Writing Body Language To “Show, Don’t Tell” (and definitely not LOOK)

  1. Hi, Dan.

    Good lesson. If I was critting, I’d note two tiny things.

    1. A nit. Missing quote:

    “…while who knows what comes for us.[missing ” ]

    2. IMO, too many short, choppy beats with two, three, or four words.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Aha! The dreaded catch words. I have too many but I love how you have worded this post. I can easily see where to look now and believe me, I will be peering, (lol) into the nooks and crannies of my ms. I read this chapter with mounting unease. The approaching hurricane, the admitting that they might have pushed it towards them. The description of the traffic if they leave it too late and then what got my heart beating was when he told Tyree to pack a bag. That’s the “Shit…this is serious stuff.” moment.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Absolutely support this. Giving “blocking” to your dialogue can really help readers visualize it, but also those dialogue tags usually aren’t needed once we know who’s in the conversation. You really only need them if the conversation group changes, or maybe sometimes if the same person says something, does something, then continues talking.

    Hardboiled detective fiction is one of the best examples of learning to show rather than tell, especially Dashiell Hammett, who usually conveyed what his characters were thinking or feeling through their words and actions rather than letting the reader inside their heads. Practice writing in third person objective and you’ll really get a handle on “show, don’t tell”.

    Liked by 1 person

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