Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor


Non-verbal Communication

By James Francis

2002, James Francis

As writers and readers, we all recognize dialogue because whatever a character speaks is put into quotes. But using speech alone to convey what your character means could leave your story thin. Your character's body language -- what she says with gestures, body movement, and facial expression -- bolsters your prose and gives weight to your story. More than sixty percent of communication in real life is said to be non-verbal, either confirming or contradicting the verbal.

Let us suppose your character is going to get fired from his job but doesn't know it yet. The boss walks into the room and looks at your character, then quickly glances away. Your character has seen sympathy in the boss's eye. The firm has been having financial troubles and there have been layoffs. Now your character, suspecting the possibility of imminent layoff, begins to worry.

And yet not a word has been spoken!

There's a friend in your story who has been going through a rough time. It shows. She droops around, and she hasn't been as neat as she once was, but today there's a spring in her step. She's dressed to the hilt, and there's a broad smile on her face. No words, but the friend's life has obviously undergone a change for the better that can only mean that, for the time being at least, her bad times are over. (Or she's due for a big letdown, depending on your story.)

Suppose we go back to the first example, where the character was about to be fired. This has only been a suspicion, but now the boss beckons your character into her office. Your character's heart starts beating faster, the body stiffens slightly, he gets a queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. Again, all that's happened is that the character has been called into the boss's office.

On television, or in a movie, much of this could be shown visually. But you're writing prose, and your job is to make the readers visualize the situation. Right or wrong, people make judgments based on what they see as well as what they hear. Non-verbal messages and information can show the reader what is really going on, either confirming or denying the spoken word.

Folded arms on a warm day and a "Nice to see you again" could show hostility. On a cold day, the folded arms could be needed for warmth. But not today; combined with tight lips, the message is the absolute opposite of the words spoken. In the visual media the viewer sees what is meant, but in prose that subtext needs to be shown through words. The meaning of the folded arms will depend very much on the circumstances in the story being narrated.

Consider this: a character enters a room, slumps into a chair and drapes a leg over the arm, tosses a book on the side table, and drops a plastic bag on the floor. What is the character communicating?  "I'm moving in"? "This is my home"? "I don't care a hoot what you think"? The actions can mean any of these things depending on what is said and whose home the character is in. Actions like this need to be shown in words to allow the reader to get a fix on the prevailing situation.

Every day, people make judgments based on other people's behavior. Your readers will judge your characters on their behavior as long as you show their actions. Show the way your characters walk, their stance, even the tilt of their head. Are they making visual contact? Are they gesturing? Have they dressed appropriately for the place and circumstance?

For instance, a brisk step can show an enthusiastic approach to a venture and project confidence. A slouch shows disinterest and insincerity. A swagger can project feelings of superiority, contempt, or even an attempt to cover up fear.

To get a point across, direct visual contact is normally required, but staring without looking away occasionally can be dominating. Shifty eyes, those that never settle into direct visual contact, can give the impression of anxiety, or show deception. Wide eyes can show understanding and acceptance of a situation, raised eyebrows may show doubt, a squint lack of understanding or disbelief.

It all sounds simple, and it is. What is required is to visualize the situation and then describe what is visible. When the writer does this well, the reader will visualize something similar.

Gestures can transmit messages such as enthusiasm. Watch for gestures in people you meet, see on television, and so forth. Make notes and adapt whatever you find to your needs. An absence of obvious gestures might show self-control or a cold attitude in the communicator. Compressed lips can repel, sending a message for the person to go. Tight facial muscles and clenched hands can display aggression or anger. Open hands say there's nothing being hidden.

Glancing often at a watch can indicate disinterest and impatience. Fiddling with things-- keys, a ring, coins, a pen -- can distract a listener from the true meaning of words being spoken.  Or it might send the listener wandering into his own thoughts, while the body motions and actions leave the words improperly understood.

There are countless other actions that can be used. Licking of lips can show many things; perhaps hunger or attraction. Pulling an earlobe or hair can show worry or distraction.

Dress can send different messages depending on the story. To be clean and neat shows respect for self and others; the same goes for the way your character stands or sits. I learned this from a personal experience when I was taking publicity photographs. A group sat around an illustration for a new public development project. They'd all seen the illustration before and they lounged back disinterested. A press photographer came in and snapped them that way and took off. When he'd gone, I had them lean forward and show interest. When the pictures were placed side by side the difference was amazing. In the one where they leaned forward they showed interest and looked as if they cared what the public's money was being spent on.

There is much more to know about non-verbal communication than will fit into a short article, but tiny changes could make a big difference to your story and let your reader share your fictional world. Don't let them down. Use body language in your prose.