Show/Don’t Tell & Body Language Lists


One of the things you will hear a great deal as a writer is to “show don’t tell.” Part of this alludes to passive voice, but eliminating passive voice isn’t enough. As a writer, your narration has to lead the reader to the conclusion you want them to arrive at without telling them outright. This is one of the more difficult aspects of writing for most people (and if you’ve picked up many books—even traditional press, high-quality ones—you will see that this isn’t always a well-followed rule).

Here is an example of what I mean.
Jack was sad because of the bad news. (Passive)
The bad news made Jack sad. (Better… not passive, but it still “tells.”)
Jack heard the news and his shoulders slumped with a sigh. (This version leads us to conclude what kind of news it was and his reaction to it based on his body language.)

Granted, we can’t do the above with every sentence. Sometimes we must set absolutes and dictate what has happened so that there is no confusion for the reader, but we should make an attempt to make our characters act out their feelings as often as possible. I find this is especially true in my own writing during dialogue.

While using different text analysis apps I’ve learned a lot about my writing and my style. I am amazing at killing passive voice in my sentences, according to the Hemingway app; I don’t even come close to the recommended limit it gives based on length and that makes my stories feel like white-knuckle page-turners… but adverbs. I tend to run over in that department, and chiefly because of dialogue. I’ve found that my characters often say things sadly or reply tensely. They should instead say things with a sigh or reply as they bristle visibly. To help improve my own writing I often consult collections of phrases that show specific body language (lest I fall into using the same few descriptive postures over and over.)

Here are a few graphics on the topic taken from Amanda Patterson’s blog. She cautions not to overuse these which can bog down the story. I can concur; authors need to keep storytelling as number one and remember that a story is not a collection of good descriptions and well-spoken details.


There are few other sites I’d recommend with additional lists:
Word Dreams
Writers in the Storm
Bryn Donovan’s Gesture List
Bryn Donovan’s Facial Expression List
TheOtakuNerd on Wattpad
Perhaps my new favorite is which links to a bunch of smaller lists based on adjectives (like a thesaurus, but collected differently.)

Do you know of body-language lists like these? Let me know in the comments!

One thought on “Show/Don’t Tell & Body Language Lists

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s