Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Eyes Have It

I’ve always been fascinated by body language.  Like many writers, I like to observe others and see if I can gain insight into what they are thinking and feeling based on more than just what they say.  Over my next several blog posts, I will focus on some aspect of body language.

Body language is defined as the nonverbal ways we communicate with each other.  Some researchers state that it comprises between 50 to 70% of all communication.  So it’s important that writers understand what their characters are doing is at least as important as what they say.

It has been said that our eyes are the windows to our soul.  But there are other things that our eyes can show us as well.  Gaze, blinking and pupil size can also be very telling.

During a conversation, direct gaze can signal interest and attention.  However, if it becomes too prolonged and focused it can be threatening.  Think about the movie “The Terminator” when the Terminator stares at the policeman and finally says, “I’ll be back.”  The audience instinctively knows that this is not going to end well.  By contrast, looking away or breaking eye contact can mean that the person is uncomfortable, distracted or hiding their true feelings.  Every parent knows this look that indicates that his or her child has done something wrong.

Blinking is a natural reflex.  But doing it too much or too little can have meaning.  Rapid blinking can signal distress or discomfort.  Increase in the rate of blinking can mean someone is thinking more or feeling stressed. This can indicate dishonesty because the liar has to think more about what they are saying than if they simply tell the truth.  To combat this, the person may force their eyes open and appear to stare.  Decreased blinking can also increase the power of the stare and can portray either dominance or romantic intent.

Pupil size can also indicate emotions.  Cognitive effort can dilate pupils.  People are said to have “doe eyes” or “bedroom eyes” because dilated pupils can indicate sexual desire.  The dilation of pupils during sexual interest may indicate that the person is considering how to attract and sustain interest of the object of their desire.  Contracting of the pupil can signal a dislike of the other person, much like squinting.  Therefore, small pupils can also make someone look threatening or unpleasant.  This anger or negativity can cause what is sometimes known as “beady eyes” or “snake eyes.”

Using the proper dialogue tags or actions can increase the impact of your story.  If your story is in first person, then body language can become even more important.  Regardless of whatever narrative style a writer uses, use of body language techniques can deepen the story and add interesting layers to the plot. 


  1. Sometimes in meetings I develop "glazed" eyes, lol!

    Great post, Lisa. Body language is so useful in conveying information about our characters. It's a good reminder to layer these bits in - both for the character doing the action and, when appropriate, the character observing the behavior.

  2. Great post, Lisa. Can't wait to hear more over the next few posts about body language. I love it, too. I'm tempted to just go sit and observe people to figure out what they do in different situations. Thank goodness there are so many good books and research out there now so that I don't need to take all that time, however, I think it'd still be fun & I do plan to do it one day soon!

    I agree totally, body language can tell us so much about the emotions of a character and actually take us deeper into the point of view character's head, than even he or she realizes. It's that conscious vs. subconscious action kind of thing--sometimes we don't even understand our feelings. And I love that. I love that our subconscious mind knows, on some level. Now if we can only tap into it for our characters and ourselves!

    I think you've gone a long way to helping us out here. Thanks, again! ;0)

  3. Wow. I never knew there was a real physical basis for "doe eyes" and "beady eyes."

    I once read that open mouth laughs and smiles are a sign of sexual interest. Add that to dialated pupils and the signal couldn't be clearer.

    Thanks, Lisa.

  4. Thank you, Keely. I'll watch for the "glazed" look at our next critique group! LOL

  5. Thank you, Mackenzie.

    I have actually done what you suggested - just sat and watched people. Mr. McQuay said that I love to get a window into someone else's life by watching what they do. Kind of poetic for a non-writer, huh?

    I do love the aspect that so many things we perceive we may not realize how we received that information.

  6. That's true, Shellie. Add the hair toss and you'd have the perfect trifecta of female sexual interest.