I’ve got the first few chapters of Corpus back from the raptor with notes and, as usual, it’s covered with the notation ‘P.D.’. P.D. – Physical Description – my personal weakness. I see what’s going on, accept it as the default setting, and then only describe highlights. I tend to forget that the reader isn’t a clairvoyant and can’t see inside my brain to the pictures there – they need to be described on the page. This mainly refers to landscape (“I know this town has cobbles, but that’s it.”) and body language. Where people are standing, what they look like, physical beats that show they’re tense or happy rather than just telling the reader.
The landscape fix is easy – I just need to go back and say what it looks like. But body language is way more subtle, especially if you want to avoid clichés. What to people do if they’re angry, for example, other than clench their fists? Well, there’s a very useful and detailed book called What Every Body Is Saying by Joe Navarro which I highly recommend. But there’s also the invaluable skill of people-watching. Sitting in a cafe in a busy shopping centre will get you all sorts of insights. It’s rarely good for actual conflict, though, and I’ve been called out for staring in the past which was a little embarrassing.
The risk-free version of this, which the raptor suggested, was to watch a film on mute. You tend to get rather more exaggerated body language on celluloid, but that’s fine. See if you can work out what’s going on without any verbal clues. What gives away the emotions and inner monologue? What are the tell-tale signs of lying, or distress, or gearing up to confrontation? We all know body language on an instinctive level – not just what to do but also how to read it. It’s a survival trait. The trick is to translate that into conscious knowledge and then describe it in a way your audience will naturally understand.