As writers, we hear this advice often: “Show, don’t tell. Show, don’t tell. Show, don’t tell.” Readers and listeners trust their own senses more than they trust blandly delivered information. It’s almost always better to illustrate something than it is to just make a statement.
But what about those times when we want to show what’s going on inside of a character’s head and let the audience know how that character is feeling? How do we illustrate internal states?
One great way is to use body language to impart information to the audience.
Let’s say we’re writing about a kid sitting in a classroom. We want the audience to know that the student is not paying attention. We can convey that information by describing the kid’s distracted body language. Maybe she’s leaning back in her chair, maybe she’s drawing triangles on her page and filling them in slowly, maybe she’s staring out the window, maybe she’s tapping her foot. Any of these cues make it clear to an audience that the kid’s not interested. And because these scenes appeal to our inner senses, the images seem much more real and engaging than a plain statement like “Little Chelsea is bored.”
Silent Movie Scenes
I’ve sketched out some scenes in a very direct, boring way below. I hope you’ll do me one better by bringing these scenes to life—without using any dialogue. None of these characters can speak. Not a word. Only gestures and postures are allowed here. Ready? Go.
- In a café: Angela is romantically interested in a man who has just entered the coffeeshop, and wants him to notice her.
- Sitting on a park bench: Peter has just been fired.
- Keith is intimidated by a man who just stepped in front of him at the bar.
- Tara’s boyfriend is breaking up with her. She’s very sad about it, and wants him to stay, but he has made up his mind.
I’m sure you can think of some other human situations to narrate using body language—practice this, and you’ll find the technique appears in your lyrics just when it’s needed.