Writing Tip

img_6440Studying Actors

Watching actors ply their craft is the best way to study body language without being nosy.  Of course, some actors are better at it than others.  And sometimes even an Oscar-winning performance may come across as unconvincing.  If you want to study an actor, pick one in a performance that really moved you.  Then watch the performance again to try and pick out what he or she did that so stirred your emotions.  Was it the reading of his lines?  Or was it how she managed her face and body to work with the lines?

Warning: sometimes, with an art, if you study it too much, it loses its magic.  If you dissect a performance that you love, you may find the next time you watch it that it doesn’t touch you as it once did because you know now how the actor pulled off the trick.  But with this is in mind, I think you will learn a lot if you take the risk to analyze a performance.

Here are some examples that have made an impression on me:

Years ago, I saw a program with Michael Caine where he was giving acting lessons to a group of young actors.  He told them that a way to convey strength was to look into the camera with a steady gaze and not blink.  He demonstrated this, and not only did it convey strength, it conveyed a big dose of creepiness too.  Then he started to blink and explained how that action made him appear weaker.

In my writing, I can use words like “steady”, “fixed”, or “locked” to describe someone’s gaze as strong or intimidating.  To describe weakness or nervousness or timidity, I write that someone blinks or does not look other people in the eyes or has a gaze that wanders or darts around.

On the newest version of the TV show “Nikita”, the character Amanda was a great villain.  I didn’t see the show much, but I picked up quickly that this was a villain you could really boo for.  I began to wonder why and paid more attention to the performance of the actress Melinda Clarke.  As Amanda, she was very, very still and usually had a blank face.  When Amanda move, it was in precise, robot-like movements.  If her face changed expression, you immediately noticed because it usually didn’t.  The stillness and blank face signaled strength, but also strangeness and evil, someone so unemotional that you did not want to be around her.

I can use words like “still”, “unmoving”, and “stiff” to describe someone strong and evil.  But if I want my character to be strong and good, I can use words like “calm”, “tranquil,” or “quiet”.  Same body language, but different words clue in the reader about how to imagine it.

I didn’t know the actress’s name, so I went to the IMDB – International Movie DataBase.  The biggest photo of Melinda Clarke shows her with a wide smile.  She looked so unlike her character on “Nikita” that I had to check her credits to make sure I had the right person.  Now that’s the way to act with body language.

Writing Tip

Placeholder ImageBody Language

I am writing about using body language and facial expressions to help tell a story because it ties in with why I observe animals.  I often describe characters in comparison to animals.

Body language plays a central role in my book.  My main character comes from a family who has a gift for reading body language and facial expressions.  His relatives use it to con people.  My main characters uses it to protect his family.

In real life, con artists read body language to pick out marks. Since not all cons work on all people, it is essential for a con artist to judge if his lies are working.  Body language and facial expressions of the mark  clue in the con artist on how he is doing.   In The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova, the author cites many studies about how we reveal our thoughts and moods through body language.

I have read books on body language to help me describe familiar emotions in new ways.  The book may say that most people register surprise by lifting their eyebrows, widening their eyes, and opening their mouths slightly.  When I write about a character being surprised, I don’t have to put down all three of those facial actions.  I can select one, such as lifting the eyebrows, and try to describe it in a unique way.  The reader will understand the emotion with one example of how the character looks.  When another character registers surprise, I can describe a different facial action, like the open mouth.  The reader will still understand that the character is surprised, but it will be a new description of the same feeling so the reader doesn’t get bored.

I also learned from my reading that when I like or am comfortable with a person I am talking to, I will automatically mimic his or her body language or facial expressions.  Just think how awkward it is to smile at someone and that person doesn’t smile back.  Mimicking others’ facial expression and body language is second nature to humans  So when it doesn’t happen, it sends a clear signal.  In writing a scene with a group of people, having one character standing out from the others because her body language doesn’t match theirs is a great way to highlight a feature of that character.

If you are interested for my ideas on how use body language in your writing, click here for a great article about it.

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