Friday, July 29, 2011

Wordless Messages

Painting by William Bouguereau

Some women flutter their eyelashes as a form of communication with the opposite sex. The problem, mused a fellow recently, is that a guy can never tell whether the woman is flirting or has something in her eye.

Men can be dense, can’t they?

They can’t be entirely blamed for the confusion, however. Communication is a real art that takes many forms and flows from many sources. The chances of something going wrong in the translation is fairly high, particularly if the communication is between the opposite sexes.

In the book, Louder Than Words: Nonverbal Communication, author A. Barbour notes that only 7% of communication is verbal. The rest of the message is made of vocal characterizations and body language.

Words, in other words, make up only a tiny fraction of the messages we send. The rest of the message is transmitted, either intentionally or unintentionally, through other means.

What does this mean for fiction writers? It means there is a huge opportunity for layers of subtext and subtlety. There’s room for characters of such depth and richness that they nearly walk from the page into your room.

Dialog is only a fraction of the communication taking place in your novel. Here are other ways your characters send messages:

Personal Space - every culture has acceptable limits for this. Characters who abide by the rule of personal space, or who violate it, are making a statement. Conversely, characters who feel their space being crossed have opportunity to react.

Facial Expression - probably the easiest and favorite method of authors to describe how their characters are feeling or what they’re thinking and for good reason: facial expressions are one of the most powerful channels of nonverbal communication. Facial expressions also include eye contact and the length of gaze. People routinely search another’s eyes to gage their level of interest or emotion.

The Body - another favorite of authors because with the body of our characters we describe movement, posture and gestures. During dialog, pay close attention to these and use them to either reinforce or contradict what your character is saying.

Touch - includes why a character touches another. Handshakes, back-slapping and caresses are all examples of that, but don’t forget it also includes how a character touches himself. Does he scratch an itch, adjust his privates, lick his lips? Much of how and where a character touches himself actually becomes a “tell” for the reader, revealing intentions or emotions.

Smell - a person’s smell, pleasant or unpleasant, can be employed by the clever author. Don’t forget to have your character get a whiff of someone. Or himself.

Voice - not only does this include the choice of words your character uses, but his accent (if he has one), tone, and loudness. Don’t forget vocal characterizations - laughing, crying, whispering, grunting, and others. But a word of caution: use these sparingly, if at all. It’s much better to convey emotions through the actions of the characters. (That old rule Show, Don’t Tell applies here.)

One last tidbit to keep in mind when writing dialog. The nonverbal aspects of the dialog can cleverly do several things for you. It can compliment what your character has said or it can contradict it. Don’t be afraid to have your character say one thing and do another. It’s human nature, after all.

I love to write dialog. I hear the words my characters speak quite freely. But I now have a new challenge to employ more of the nonverbal methods humans use to send messages. I can use those ways in my work to make it better, to make the subtext richer, the tension tighter, the meanings more layered.

In other words, if a woman in my novel bats her eyelashes, the man is going to know without a doubt what she means by it.


  1. Great post, Susan! It's hard to steer clear of cliches, like widened eyes and raised brows, though...
    I think it was Donald Maass that mentioned Desmond Morris' escalating levels of contact, which are useful in showing a developing relationship.
    "The 12 steps he identified (in order) are: Eye to Body, Eye to Eye, Voice to Voice, Hand to Hand, Arm to Shoulder, Arm to Waist, Mouth to Mouth, Hand to Head, Hand to Body, Mouth to Breast, Hand to Genitals, and finally, Sexual Intercourse" (off wikipedia)

  2. There's a good article on this in July's The Writer by Thomas Kaufman, an award-winning cameraman and author. Check out "Use Movement and Gesture in Your Fiction."

    Good post, Susan.

  3. YES!

    Gah. I loved this post. I'm a total sucker for use of body language and other nonverbal stuff in fiction -- my challenge becomes using it without making it seem like stage directions. Working on that. [g]

  4. Deniz, LOL. It's too easy to use the same body language over and over, isn't it? I tend to use eyes/eye contact a lot too.

  5. Zan Marie, thanks for the recommendation. I'll go take a look!

  6. Jill, Yay for using nonverbal cues and body language in your writing. Try writing from a deeper character POV. The farther away you are from your character's POV, the more it reads like stage directions.