Lighting a cigarette to show nervousness may have become cliché, but there’s a wealth of body language we can use to show character, mood, or attitude.

  • She started ticking off points on her fingers.
  • A hand fumbled at the doorknob, then pulled it open just far enough to take his width.
  • He sprawled across the sofa, his head thrown back and hands clasped behind it in a ruminating repose.
  • He kicked off his loafers, swiveled onto a hip and hooked one socked foot under the opposite calf.
  • His hand rose from his thigh, scratched his elbow, and flicked at his nose.
  • He placed his flat hands together and pressed them hard between his knees.
  • His neck compressed into his shoulders and hands clawed at the air before shrinking up into his sleeves.
  • “It’s in the details,” he said in a two-handed gesture that looked as though he were speed rolling a cigarette.

Depending on how context illuminates these examples, each says something about the personality and the personality’s emotions.  The writer doesn’t have to tell us whoever is impatient or fed up… insignificant… entitled, etc.

After a short first chapter, which intentionally withholds a proper introduction of its two characters—a father racing down the road towards the hospital with his passenger son whose hand sits in a bucket of ice (no longer attached to his forearm)—writer Dan Chaon turns the page and opens chapter two of Await Your Reply.  One minute speeding through the night with our nails deep in vinyl and the next, quasi asleep in the backseat of a car as it ambles across the prairie toward Nebraska, we meet Lucy and George.  Now, we’re a little disoriented, a mild case of whiplash, but something seems off-beam with this couple, an orphaned high school student fleeing life in Pompey Ohio to live large with her teacher-turned-boyfriend.

Shortly after the couple makes their destination, we find the two in bed together. Unable to sleep, Lucy “lay there staring up at the swimmy darkness that her brain couldn’t process…  Suggestions of shapes floated across the surface like protozoa seen through a microscope, but there wasn’t too much for the optic mechanism to actually hold on to.”  So—

She slid her hand beneath the covers until she came up against the shoreline of George Orson’s body.  His shoulder, his chest, the ribs rising and falling underneath his skin, his warm belly, which she pressed against—until at last he turned over and put his arm over her, and she felt her way along the length of it until she found his wrist, his hand, his pinkie finger.  Which she held.

First, the writer again feeds us George’s last name.  Second, his pinky finger? Something is definitely off-beam.  I’ll say no more—you have to read the book—but take another peek back in the bedroom.  Like a child in the dark, Lucy is looking for something to hold onto and, like a child, she takes George Orson’s pinky.  Notice, though, how she edges up to him, almost hinting of her presence, almost frightened by his.  Could it be a little of both? Hmm.  And notice George.  Is he asleep or sleepily obliging?  How could any red-blooded man with a nineteen-year-old is his bed be either?  Again I say, read the book. Chaon gives us just enough information to create tension and keep us guessing.

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist