Silence in Writing

I adored The Artist. Jean Dujardin, as Valentin, deserves his Best Actor Oscar.

In one scene, the irrepressible Peppy disparages the broad gesticulations and exaggerated facial expressions of the old silent films as “mugging for the camera”. This film has none of that.

If you haven’t seen the movie yet, go see it now.

Yes, yes… but how does this relate to writing?

A lot of a modern novel’s emotional action is conveyed in dialog. What happens when you remove it?

You’re left with silence…

that needs filling with effective body language.

There’s a scene where Valentin is sunk deep in despair. His anguish is clearly understood through his slumped posture, his disheveled appearance, the look on his face, his lethargic movements.

Not a word is necessary.

One of my favorite comments when I critique or judge is get out of the character’s head and into her body.  Show a character’s emotion  by what’s going on in her body, not via her words.

Instead of “I want to shout at you so much!” , or she was furious at her ill mother but she couldn’t say a thing, use emotive body language, Cathy pressed a fist against lips tucked between her teeth.  Can you see Cathy desperately trying to keep her words contained?

Another example? Instead of “I’m scared to ask.”  or Hayley was so jumpy about asking her mom about her dad, how about Hayley’s bent leg bounced like a maniac rubber ball. She stabbed her thigh with the brush handle to stop the darn jiggling. The brush and her leg bounced together. Can you see the incredible tension?

The next time you’re trying to show a character’s response, imagine him in a silent movie. How would you direct him to show his emotion?

Tip: For an awesome course on body language, I highly recommend Mary Buckham’s Body Language and Emotion at

© Joan Leacott 2012
photo © pressmaster/123RF Stock Photo

13 Comments on “Silence in Writing

  1. I liked the movie too. makes me know how is the feeling of watching silent-black white movie. And i cherish the woman struggle to get a one sec role at the beginning of the movie


    • All that work for so little reward. Glad things have improved for women since then. Thanks for stopping by and following.


  2. Get out of the character’s head and into her body. Show a character’s emotion by what’s going on in her body, not via her words.

    –YES! Writers who do that make me lose a lot of sleep. LOL. I too am a Margie Lawson disciple on body language and visceral reaction/response. Good, good stuff. Thanks, Joan! 🙂


    • It almost feels like a slip into omniscient point of view. Which would be fine if the whole book was that way. Most often, though it get the feeling that it’s sloppy deep third person. Thanks for dropping by!


  3. I was told today that I’m good at reading body language yet I am conscious that I use so little of it in my writing. Odd to come upon this post today of all days. Maybe the lesson is being reinforced.


    • Funny how the universe conspires to tell you something over and over again until you’re ready to hear it. Yay, you, for listening.


  4. So true on writing with body language. ALSO very effective to use body language as dialog cues. It adds some action to break up narrative and can be used effectively to show how the words were delivered.

    Sometimes, I sit, close my eyes, move my mouth and hands as I would in my character’s POV and repeat until I determine what I’m “feeling” is happening with my facial expression or body language. Hmmm. That may be why they like to keep an eye on me at Starbucks when I write there. “Don’t let her scare the customers.”

    I’m with Sherry as well on Margie Lawson as another resource for writing body language, empowering character emotions, and writing dialog cues. Nothing against Mary Buckham. I know she’s well-respected and a pro at her craft. The recommendation is an IN ADDITION TO. I need to check out Mary’s classes. There are pearls of wisdom in every craft class.


    • What a interesting technique–I’ll try that. But not in public. LOL. I’ve done Margie’s awesome classes as well. Definitely an ace resource.


  5. Body language and expressions are the mark of an accomplished actor. For more lessons on body language, may I suggest Margie Lawson. Every instructor has a different point of view, so gobble up the knowledge where ever you can find it.

    And the, slide a Mr. Bean disk into the DVD player. WOOT! Rowan Atkinson is the master of body language. (IMHO)


    • Oh yes! Mr. Bean! How could I have forgotten? Do you remember him painting his room? Or stuffing a turkey? Lordy, I laughed so hard, my face hurt.