By Deborah Raney
A few years ago, I was speaking at a MOPS group (Mothers of Preschoolers) in a small Midwestern town. As I learned to do from the wonderful speaker and writer Liz Curtis Higgs, I had picked out my “balcony people” in each quadrant of the room–those women who were nodding and smiling and giving positive feedback with their body language. Speaking to just those four people would keep me encouraged, but make it appear I was speaking to the entire room.
Unfortunately, just a few minutes into my talk on “Building a Lasting Marriage,” one of the middle-aged women who’d been helping with check-in earlier plopped down right in front of my front left quadrant “cheerleader.” And this woman was not a balcony person. With arms folded across her ample bosom, she aimed a sour glare at me. Though the young moms seemed to be engaged and enjoying my speech, it seemed the more I talked, the tighter Miss Grouch’s brows knit. I finally had to quit looking at that quadrant of the room altogether.
Still a little rattled, when I finished speaking, I made my way to the back of the room, relieved to greet the young women at my book table and to hear they’d really related to the things I shared that God has taught Ken and me about marriage.
You could have knocked me over with a feather!
But here’s the thing: the disconnect between Miss Grouch’s demeanor and her words forever changed the way I look at my audiences when I speak…and at people in general. Now, when I’m met with a hair-singeing glare, I simply assume the person wearing the glare is hanging on my every word, thinking how much their loved one desperately needs to hear the message. It has changed not only the way I approach speaking, but the way I view hurting people. It has freed me from caring too much about what others think. Because you never really know what someone is thinking until they tell you to your face. And maybe not even then!
But more than that, I learned some very important things about writing that day. Especially writing non-POV characters. You can create some dramatic–or comical…or mysterious–moments when your point-of-view character totally misinterprets a non-POV character’s body language or tone of voice. Or when they take something another character says literally, when it was meant figuratively. Maybe the red-faced, sputtering man your POV heroine is talking to isn’t angry at all–maybe he’s having a heart attack! Maybe the hero stomped away not out of contempt, but because he was afraid he might kiss the heroine if he stayed one more minute.
Real life is full of wrong assumptions and honest misunderstandings. Real people’s facial expressions don’t always match what’s actually going on in their heads. And using similar disconnects in your fiction can add a rich layer of tension that will keep readers turning the pages for the next surprise.
Have you ever misread someone’s body language and been surprised to learn what they were really thinking? Has anyone ever misread your true feelings because what was on your face apparently didn’t match your thoughts? Can you think of an example–from your own writing or that of another author–of how to use misread body language or tone to create wonderful tension between characters?
DEBORAH RANEY’s first novel, A Vow to Cherish, inspired the World Wide Pictures film of the same title and launched her writing career after twenty happy years as a stay-at-home mom. She recently turned in the final manuscript for her five-book Chicory Inn Novels series with Abingdon Press. More at www.deborahraney.com.