We’re happy to welcome back RWASD member, R. Ann Siracusa. She’s got some great thoughts on Body Language…

Hope you’ll give us your thoughts…


I’m on my soapbox again.  At the risk of being booted off our blog, I’d like to ask a question of editors.  Haven’t you, as a group, ever learned about Retained Neonatal Reflexes, muscle memory, or reflex actions?  How about body language?

Pretty common information, right?

You’d think.  However, I’ve worked a number of different line editors over the last five years, and they all seem to love this little note on their line edits?

“Green: Indicates independently acting body parts, particularly on the part of the POV character. Please revise so that characters’ body parts aren’t acting on their own, but rather the characters are the ones doing the movement/action.”

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not complaining about the editing process or edits in general.  Edits and line edits are not only necessary, but they are an opportunity to make our work the best that it can be.  Most of the time, I make the changes the editor wants.  But I disagree that this particular edit comment about body parts moving on their own is alwaysaccurate.

Let’s take some examples from my recent line edits.  I’m not claiming these are the greatest, most literary sentences in western literature, but I also don’t think the comment applies.

Her wide gray eyes gazed into his, growing even larger, as though he’d taken her totally by surprise.

The comment was, “All by themselves?  Body parts can’t act independently.”  Really?  When you have your eyes closed, and you hear a loud, unexpected noise near your head, don’t your eyes pop open?  Or do you say to yourself, “The noise scared me so I will open my eyes now.”?

My confused mind grappled with the sensation that I didn’t know where or who I was.

Okay, believe it or not, our minds can “grapple” and “struggle” and “wander.”  It’s not something you decide to do…it just happens.  This is a sentence I wouldn’t change for the editor.

His brow scrunched into a confused frown.

A person can definitely decide consciously to frown.  However, if surprised, startled, or in spontaneous response to a sudden emotion, a human being can frown as a reflex action.  To me, saying, “He scrunched his brow into a frown” sounds like an intentional action.  The other form seems more like a reflex action in response to the situation.

My stomach clenched.

Sorry, but I don’t purposely clench my stomach.  Do you?

You’re Not Going To Win

While I realize publishing houses have their standards and the editor will prevail, and I understand the concerns editors have for eyes that dart, arms that lift, and so on.  I’ve also done a fair amount of research on body language.  Under certain circumstances, some body parts do, in fact, take actions independent of conscious thought.  And that’s a scientifically proven fact.

So, What’s The Problem?

Are readers so unfamiliar with body language that they will be confused or will misinterpret the words we write?  Personally, I don’t think so, and my research backs that up.

The study of body movements is called Kineses, and there is abundant research available on the topic that shows that most humans communicate through body language as well as through speech and are very adept at interpreting body language.

A substantial portion of human body language gestures are reflexive and unconscious, but it is possible to learn to control most of them except the pupils and secretions of the eye.  Also, individual body language gestures can mean more than one thing and should be interpreted only in relation to other gestures, activities, and other kinds of information (particularly since it is possible for a person to control the body language gestures).

Body Language Indicators

Body language is defined by some as a reaction to an emotion.  Because writers use those non-verbal indicators of mood and emotion in their writing, it’s good to be familiar with reading and understanding body language.  At the end, I’ve listed several links for interpreting body language that you may find useful.  Below are categories of body movements that authors can use to describe mood and emotion.

● Posture
● Head motion
● Facial expression
● Eye Contact (or lack of contact)
● Other movements and aspects of the eyes
● Gestures
● Paralanguage
● Voice and tone, speed of speaking
● Space
● Silence
● Listening

Retained Neonatal Reflexes
To some extent, humans retain a few of the involuntary reflexes (controlled by the lower centers of our brain) from the womb when the central nervous system is not fully developed.  In the early years of life, as the higher centers of the brain begin to mature, these reflexes are gradually integrated, but certain residual primary reflexes stick with us.

● Fear
● Pain
● Surprise
● Anything that triggers the fight or flight reaction.

According to Body Language Insights, “Body language is a largely automatic response to fearful situations.  The behaviors of our body language are mostly innate to us, though some might be “inherited.”  Either way, we have little knowledge of or control over when our bodies react to fear and how.  Depending on the severity of the situation, our fear can excite us, encourage us, shock us, or completely paralyze us.  And it will be written all over our faces!”

Most of us are familiar with the “fight or flight” adrenalin rush of the sympathetic nervous system.  This reflex readies the body for survival during stressful situations.  According to, “interactions between the neural and hormonal systems of the body work together to get the body ready to stand and fight the challenge or run away from it (flight).  When faced with life-threatening crises, unnecessary functions are temporarily shut down and energies are diverted to functions vital to survival.  Any stress, whether physical, psychological (anticipation of an unpleasant event) or emotional (anger or fear) will produce some, if not all elements of the fight or flight response.”

Therefore, in situations where our fictional characters are startled or surprised, hurt, or stressed (including anticipation of something unpleasant), the body may react without conscious thought, both viscerally and physically.  Sure, the reacting body parts are attached to a person’s central nervous system which is sending signals to cells as electrochemical waves travelling along thin fibers called axons, but that’s happening at a subconscious level.  For all intents and purposes, the body parts are acting independently of the cerebrum.

Muscle Memory

Another factor that comes into play is muscle memory.  Muscle memory is described as a type of movement with which the muscles become familiar over time, i.e. consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition.  When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious thought or effort.  A person often utilizes muscle memory driving a car, reacting defensively to threat, and so on.

Therefore, in a physical situation such as a fight (in a novel or real life), an arm or leg might shoot out as the result of muscle memory and, basically, act independently.  You can do something without realizing you’re doing it, depending on the circumstances and action involved.

Uncontrollable Visceral Reactions

Visceral reactions, by definition, are subconscious reactions.  While generally internal, such reactions may also be detectible (usually through sight or smell) to others and can be used to alert other characters in your novels (and readers) to what’s going on emotionally.

Just one problem.  People have these visceral reactions for lots of reasons.  Hence, the advice that one needs to observe a number of body language indicators before interpreting what the other person is thinking/feeling.

Secretions and excretions – While many secretions are detectible only by smell, others such as tears and watering of the eye, perspiration, and saliva, can be visual.  There are other secretions, but I’m not going to go there.  (FYI: Earwax is also a secretion, but I doubt that it has much of a role in writing novels.)

Gaseous outputs  – Gross!  Gaseous outputs include exhaling, sneezing, coughing, burping, and intestinal gas.  They all give information about the body and, in some cases, mood or emotional reaction.  A sigh can be a form of exhaling that indicates weariness, relief, resignation, and so on.  Coughing and sneezing, used to dislodge obstructions in respiratory passages, may also be caused by irritants.  We can all figure out which of these can be controlled.

Heat generation – While the human body generally maintains a temperature of 98.6º Fahrenheit, body temperature is an uncontrollable indicator which can give visible and sensory indicators to others.  A blush from embarrassment, a flushed face from fever, and sexual attraction.  Sometimes it’s possible to actually feel the heat pouring off someone, and that is an uncontrollable reaction.  However, no flying body parts need be involved.

Electrical activity – This is one I had trouble getting my arms around even though I know that brains cells (neurons) use electrical energy to communicate with each other.  There are four types of brainwaves generated depending on what a person is doing.  These brainwaves are associated with mental states.  For example: Anxious people tend to produce an overabundance of high Beta waves.  Another example: When you close your eyes, your brain automatically starts to produce more Alpha waves, associated with the mental state of being awake but relaxed and not processing much information.

Yeah, so?

So, it’s something to be aware of.  Brainwaves can’t be detected without benefit of sophisticated medical equipment.  Hence, they are not only involuntary but undetectable by others.  But haven’t you been in a room full of excited or hostile people—situations where emotions are intense—and actually felt the electrical output in the form of tension?  The old cliché “the tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife.”  Electricity in the air is not just metaphorical.

Sound – Sounds like coughing, sneezing, humming, stuttering, a high-pitched voice, speaking too fast, wheezing, clicking the tongue, and so on are common signals we understand.  They may be unconscious and uncontrolled, but one can learn to control them.  Even changes in our breathing, while usually reflex actions, can be controlled.

One reaction and sound that can’t be easily controlled (and for most of us, not at all), and is detectible by others, is heart rate.  In addition to being able to see pulse points jump and throbbing arteries, my research indicates that in close proximity you can hear another’s heart beating.

A Word Of Advice

Editors are still going to give you comments like those at the beginning.  I’m giving you some ammunition in case you want to write that your character’s mind wandered, or someone’s stomach roiled.  Go ahead and argue, if you want, but your editor will probably prevail.

Body Language References   This is one of the best references                                                                     

Causes of Dilated Pupils |

4 thoughts on “BODY PARTS ACTING ON THEIR OWN – R. Ann Siracusa

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