The Necessity of Kinesics

K is for kinesics, which in the study of linguistics means the analysis of how body movements can communicate meaning.  As a writer this is something that we must learn how to use as well as we use dialogue to communicate characterization, mood and tone.

I have read plenty of writing where the writer has grasped this concept well.  I have also read much writing where this is profoundly a problem for the writer.  One could easily write a scene where two characters exchange dialogue, telling the reader how they feel or they can simply describe body language without letting the characters say a word.  In illustration of this point, I will provide a visual and then a written example of this.

Watch this scene from season 2 of The Walking Dead, noticing what is not said verbally, but what is said with expressions and body language:

Notice that Daryl really does care about Carol and she returns those feelings, allowing him to rant about the loss of Sophia.  It is this type of body language that we need to capture as writers.  It is what makes good acting and it is also what makes enjoyable characterization.

A written example of this type of thing would be from my current WIP, Addled.  In this scene, the town sheriff forcefully requests that the protagonist get in his unmarked patrol truck.  I was going for rising tension throughout the scene.  I spent some time describing the body language in equal measure of the dialogue.  The protagonist is suffering from amnesia.  They are in the sheriff’s truck:

“I had some kinda episode,” Michael blurted out, trying to help his case a little.  “Didn’t mean to scare anybody.”

“Well you did scare somebody,” snapped the officer, turning his hard edged face toward Michael with a strangely swift motion for such a large man.  Michael could see his own unfamiliar face reflected in each lens of the turtle shell Ray Bans.  “Purt near shocked the socks off Suzie and Mabel Karnes.  Didn’t even see ya layin’ there ’til ya stood up.  You tell me how ya ended up takin’ a nap in the park?”

Michael looked at the officer’s big farmer hands again, this time noticing a black spot beneath the waxy right thumb nail.  A tiny paper calendar stuck to the dashboard told Michael that it was April.

“Don’t really know, officer,” he stammered.  “Can’t really remember.”

The man’s square face turned slowly toward Michael again and then back toward the road.

“Officer!” the sheriff chuckled, turning red, that crook-toothed grin forming again, his deep laugh a gravelly wheeze.  “You ain’t called me that in a while, Prosper.  Can’t ya even ‘member my name?  I need to take ya to the clinic?”

“No,” Michael replied softly, timidly, cringing in his seat.  “I just—“

“Well shoot!” said the officer.  “Darnell Norris!  Pleased to meet ya, boy!  Dat gum, Michael, we played ball back in the day before yer life went to pot.  Don’t ya ‘member nothin’?”

“Heh, yeah.  Guess so.”

No. Not really.

“Listen,” said Norris, his voice lowering to an even drone, his words falling like frozen water vapor from his near lipless mouth.  “I ain’t gonna truck with no deadbeat parole violator.  You done considerable well ‘till now, so don’t blow it.  I’ll be watchin’ ya pretty close from here on out.  I don’t know what you got into last night, Prosper, but I’ll find out…and when I do…well we’ll see, won’t we?”

Silence.  Michael could hear only the road and the blood pumping through his ears.

“I… I don’t really remember anythin’ before I woke up there Darne—”

“Sheriff,” he grunted.  “You can call me sheriff.  Elected to the title, I suppose you can call me that, bud, since you put yourself on that side of things.”

Michael’s face felt warm and the dizziness started to return.  He closed his eyes, sucked in a breath.  He silently turned to his right to look out the window, watching as they turned onto another potholed blacktop road, and then he heard another deep rumbling chuckle coming from this old friend he couldn’t remember.  He suddenly imagined a large linebacker tackling him to the ground and grinding his knee into his sternum.

“Shoot, man,” said Norris, his sausage sized fingers tapping the steering wheel.  “You go on up to your place and get some rest, check in with Burke at the shop, see if you can’t keep things together…at least this time. Don’t wanna lose that fine job you got.”

Michael could feel the bile rise to his throat as he tried not to glare at the man. The sheriff simply ignored him, touching the front brim of his felt hat as they passed a couple of teenage girls who met them on the road in their light blue Volkswagen Golf.

“Here we go,” said Norris as he turned the wheel with the palm of one of his large hands, the truck rocking to a stop.  “Looks like this is you.”

Michael couldn’t open the door fast enough, feeling the air pressure rise within the cab of that unmarked.

I did much with making the Norris seem menacing, juxtaposing his friendly dialogue with scary images.  The point is to balance the dialogue with body language that helps to sell the characters to the reader, to show them rather than tell them what a person is like.  Hopefully from this passage the reader can see that this sheriff will be back to harass the protagonist in future pages, and cringe when they read about him.

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2 thoughts on “The Necessity of Kinesics

  1. On a secondary level, you also avoided the ‘floating in ether’ problem that occurs in so many stories. That is, when characters yammer away without any sense of what is going on around them or their environment, as if they are no longer corporeal beings. You brought the physical element in through Michael’s thoughts.

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