The “Body Language” of Prose: How to Create Mood in Writing

It’s not every day we get to hear incredible advice from a great author, and today is no exception. Aussie novelist Liliane Grace is well, gracing us with exactly how to provide intense emotions in our writing.

If you are writing a screenplay or your own novel, this is just the thing for you to read today. AND, it’s a must read for aspiring features journalists.

 Special thanks to the Page Seventeen literary journal for allowing me to republish Ms. Grace’s essay.

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If you’ve been writing for a while you’re probably well familiar with that old adage, ‘Show Don’t Tell’. Instead of telling the reader ‘he was angry’ or ‘she was bored’, show those things through sensory-specific details and actions. Done. But there’s another level you can go to in order to really powerfully communicate mood, and that is by understanding and working with the ‘body language’ of your prose.

            When oral communication is broken down into its components, we find this:

Words = 7%

Tonality = 38%

Body Language = 55%

            You know that’s true because if someone were to snarl ‘Of course I love you!’ you would believe their tone of voice and body language far more readily than their words. Likewise if someone grins at you and bats you across the head affectionately while saying, ‘you dumb arse!’, you’ll probably feel loved rather than attacked.

            How does this translate to a medium that appears to be 100% words? Well, there’s a paradoxical thing happening here. Yes, a piece of writing operates exclusively through words, but the way those words are ‘joined’ is effectively the ‘body language’ and ‘tone’ of your piece of writing. (I.e. Are the sentences short, sharp, abrupt, punchy and jarring or smooth, drifty, long and vague?) The length and style of the phrase conveys the body language, which equates to some 55% in the ‘impact’ stakes.

            The big key to conveying mood in writing is therefore to capture the rhythms of that mood or emotion in your prose. To identify those rhythms, ask yourself this: how do people talk when they feel bored? angry? impatient? sad? joyous? grief-stricken? Anger is an easy one to identify – someone who is angry speaks in short, abrupt, punchy bursts: ‘Stop it!’ ‘Give it back’ ‘Don’t do that!’ ‘It’s mine!’ ‘You idiot!’ On the other hand, someone who is bored has a drifty quality to their speech: ‘I don’t know what to dooo…’ Applying those rhythms to your dialogue (or monologue) is one thing, but applying them to the entire structure of your piece of writing is the key to conveying mood at an even deeper level.

            The power in a communication lies in its degree of congruence. This is true for both oral and written communications. We will believe the statement “I love you” far more readily if it is spoken with soft eyes, open body language and a caring tone of voice than if those words are shot at us with hard eyes, evasive body language and a rough tone of voice.

            Likewise when we are writing. The body language, or structure of our sentences, conveys the deeper meaning. The structure shows us what is really going on. When the structure mirrors the content, we have a congruent piece of writing that is more likely to affect the reader at a deep level. When we are depressed, for example, our language tends to fall into repetitive tracks; we literally get stuck in ruts of thinking and they are apparent in our expression. A depressed character will convey depression more effectively if both dialogue and descriptions show repetitive tracks and ‘ruts’.

            Listen to the body language of this piece of writing from The Complete Short Stories of Somerset Maugham. Does the structure mirror the content?

            He talked as though it were a natural function of the human being, automatically, as men breathe or digest their food; he talked not because he had something to say, but because he could not help himself, in a high-pitched, nasal voice, without inflection, at one dead level of tone. He talked with precision, using a copious vocabulary and forming his sentences with deliberation; he never used a short word when a longer one would do; he never paused. He went on and on. It was not a torrent, for there was nothing impetuous about it, it was like a stream of lava pouring irresistibly down the side of a volcano. It flowed with a quiet and steady force that overwhelmed everything that was in its path.[1]

            The character being described ‘went on and on’, and the description goes on and on also; a beautiful example of structure mirroring content. This piece both tells and shows us this character.

            Here’s a description about the Krakatoa tidal wave from Krakatoa by Simon Winchester[2]:

            Each of those snared by the Telok Betong wave speaks of running, wildly, panicked, trying madly to stay ahead of the wave, following natives running wildly too; and, in the particular case of the anonymous European writing in the Java Bode, of running behind a woman who stumbled and dropped her baby and could not abandon it and so was swept away, of running behind another woman who was – somewhat incredibly it must be said – in the very process of delivery as she ran, screaming and bloody, of seeing a man desperately trying to avoid the wall of water by climbing up as high as possible, by running up every slope that could be found, of snatching hurried looks behind him to see, horrible in its immensity, the ever-pursuing wall, which from time to time smashed against some obstacle and broke, disintegrating into huge and dirty grey piles of spray and wreckage-filled foam, but then regrouping and following him always with a roaring restlessness, with an unstoppable energy, with a dogged and seemingly murderous resolutions such that he could only continue to run, despite being so leaden-legged and air-starved and exhausted, run ever onwards, always impelled by the frenzied gale that howled ahead of the wave, and by the certain knowledge that if he stopped or took a wrong turn that set him downhill rather than up he would be brought down drowned and his body crushed and hurled against the broken walls and jagged edges of spars and smashed glass and masonry that was rising up all around him.

            That excerpt is only one sentence – one sentence that rushes with demons on its tail, on all sides and ahead, perfectly embodying the urgency and drama of the moment.

            The following story was written by one of my writing students. It’s about the time when her family lost contact with her sister, who was travelling overseas. Notice the ‘body language’ of this piece of writing while you are reading.

            Bernie has not heard anything. Apparently there was a boarding pass issued for the flight but that does not mean she was on the plane. I ask her again what the time difference is so that I can calculate it. Add seven hours and take away a day.

            The phone does not ring. Impatient I call my mother back. The phone rings out. My mother cannot have just left again. I call the phone company and ask them to check the line. Yes, there is a fault on the line. If it is close I should drive over there and check that the phone is plugged in correctly.

            My parents are 20 minutes away but I must do something so I drive over. This information helps. If my parents’ phone is out of order my sister may have not been able to get through. She would not know my number off by heart (maybe she had everything stolen.). I arrive and tell them that their phone is out of order. I try on my mobile. Their phone can call out but does not ring when I call it. My mother dropped the phone a week ago.

            Do you agree that the ‘body language’ of this piece is jumpy? It’s comprised of short, staccato statements that accentuate the speakers’ frequent changes in direction. What emotional state are we in when we are jumpy and easily distracted, tending to go this way and then that way? The answer is ‘anxious’, and this piece of writing ‘shows’ anxiety through its tone and sentence structure.

            Now here’s another example to consider. Your children might have read the Alex Rider series, by Anthony Horowitz, which is about a teenage boy who becomes a spy. In the first book, Storm Breaker, Alex Rider’s uncle is killed in a car accident, or so we are led to believe. The policemen who come to deliver this news are ‘awkward and unhappy’ but Alex’s feelings are never revealed, and, in fact, those policemen’s emotions are, by memory, the only feelings indicated in the entire book.[3]

            Why so little emotional expression? Because spies don’t show their feelings. They can’t be vulnerable. So the structure, a factual, telling style that masks emotion, matches the content, a story about spies. Note also that the adjectives used are judgemental distancing ones – ‘awkward’, ‘unhappy’. What is being said and how it is being said match.

            The Book of Everything is an extraordinarily powerful and very unusual story about a boy whose father is beating his wife. The child, Thomas, is unable to cope with this violation of his own instinct about what is right, or with his feelings of grief and helplessness, so he escapes into flights of fantasy. Instead of being told that he is not coping, we are shown his extreme distress by transitions that take us from the description of simple, everyday, domestic details to wild and unexpected imagery that becomes increasingly absurd and unreal:

            Father was silent. Solemnly, he put his fork and knife down on his plate and stood up. He grew taller and taller until his head was higher than the lamp over the table.

            Every living thing on earth held its breath. The sparrows on the windowsill choked on their trumpets. The sun went dark and the sky shrank.[4]

            This is a beautiful demonstration of a writer showing his character’s feelings via imagery rather than judgemental descriptive adjectives, but there is more to its power than that. Someone who is emotionally disturbed tends to exaggerate and distort their experience, often generalising and speaking in absolutes, and author Guus Kuijer demonstrates this superbly by drawing the ‘structure’ or ‘nature’ of mental illness right into his content. In other words, the dynamic works both ways.

            When Thomas is himself beaten for rudeness, he prays to God to send all the plagues of Egypt to his father. ‘God was silent in every language. The angels tried to dry their tears, but their hankies were so soaked through that it started raining even in the deserts.’

            When Thomas falls in love, and the girl in question shows that she also cares for him, ‘All over Holland and the rest of the world, far into the deepest tropical regions, every bud was springing open, every blossom peeping out’.

            Another manifestation of anxiety is becoming ‘disembodied’. That quality is beautifully expressed in Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates when a woman finds herself talking and talking and observing the sound of her own voice:

            Her voice had become the only living thing in Mrs Givings; all the rest was numb.

            And actually, her voice reassured them, they’d be surprised at what a really excellent place Greenacres was… The voice went on and on, steadily weakening, until at last it came to its point.[5]

            The following sentence from Life and Times of Michael K, by J M Coetzee, uses very simple verbs and simple, short-sentence descriptions, because the character, Michael K, is a very simple man. Coetzee takes us right into the simplicity at the heart of his every action, such as in these lines:

            A woman was washing a bowl at a garden tap. She looked over her shoulder at him. K tipped his hat. She looked away.

            What about writing about sexual intimacy?When a couple is attracted to each other and wants to make love, they will be very grounded in their bodies, so powerful writing in this domain will reflect that by being especially sensual. Feelings, and sensations will lead, rather than your character’s thoughts. Candles, eyes, breath, thigh, skin, scent… all of these things bring us close and highlight our senses. On the other hand, if the couple making love is not in love, then perhaps thoughts will dominate. Perhaps she will be thinking about tomorrow’s shopping list while she ‘does her duty’. As ever, your combination of ingredients (structure and content) must match if your writing is to be impactful.

            These principles regarding the body language of prose are equally to be found in the writing of non-fiction. If we are writing a report, our language will often be restrained, conservative, general and passive – especially if one is attempting to avoid personal responsibility. As soon as a piece of writing is converted into personal, active language (‘I did it’ instead of the passive ‘it was done’), the writing is much more energetic and responsibility is communicated.

            Another tool at your disposal when it comes to conveying mood in writing is punctuation. Punctuation is a marvellous, under-rated thing. It’s like the traffic signals of a piece of writing. Get it wrong, and the reader will crash; get it right, and the reader must follow your signals, must feel what you want them to feel. They will have no choice.

            A great test of your writing is to read it aloud. If my children wrote an essay, I would always teach grammar and punctuation by asking them to read what they had written aloud and literally, exactly as they had written it, so they could hear where it ‘crashed’ – where the reader was not allowed to pause, or where the pauses interrupted the flow.

            These dots and lines and dashes have great power over your reader. Use them well and you will guide your reader to pause, plod, meander, stride or rush in accordance with your story mood. The more the structure mirrors the content, the more congruent your emotional message will be, and hence the more impactful.


[1] p. 854

[2] Penguin Books Australia Ltd. 2003

[3] p. 8 Storm Rider by Anthony Horowitz

[4] Allen & Unwin, 2006, p. 35

[5] Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, Vintage Books, 2009 (first pub. Little, Brown in 1961), p 161.

About Liliane Grace

Liliane Grace is a published and award-winning writer (short stories, plays, articles, novel). Her self-published book, ‘The Mastery Club’, has sold over 12,000 copies. Having taught Creative Writing for over 20 years, she recently converted her Writing Mastery program into a 10 session e-course. This article is adapted from her e-course, ‘Your Life: A Brilliant Story – an e-course for Writing (& life) Mastery. www.lilianegrace.com This article was first published in page seventeen Magazine, November 2011.

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