90% Non-verbal Stuff — Part 1

Yesterday I asked three questions of my writing friends. Since I got such a great response, and since several people have expressed interest in this particular topic–me especially–I decided to spread out their ideas over the next three days. That way this post won’t be ten pages long (and it might also give you some time to think of tricks that you can share with us as well).

here are the questions:

  1. If 90% of all communication is non-verbal, how should authors portray this? 
  2. How have you seen non-verbal communication used in other books? 
  3. What tricks have you personally tried that worked without weighing down the manuscript?

The first response comes from Tricia Pease. I broke down what she said into bullet points because I tend to think in bullet points.

Tricia:  I guess the biggest thing for me is to:

  1. Keep the non-verbal stuff brief and intuitive.
  2. Have the characters respond to a situation in way that your readers can relate to on some level.
  3. Try to keep the non-verbal communication logical. When authors make their characters do too much or too little in response to a situation, I feel myself stepping away from the story line and wondering what the author is thinking.
  4. I also have found that if I am spending too much time describing the non-verbal communication and it is weighing down my story, I just stop writing that scene. I’ll write the next chapter or two and then I can come back and fix it a lot easier. When I know what’s coming next it helps to more accurately describe what has already happened.

So true. What Tricia said made me think about the movie “Tangled.”

I love, love, love the scene when the guard comes to tell the king and queen that their long-lost daughter has finally been found. There isn’t a single word uttered. Not one. It’s all non-verbal totally cool stuff. It’s also brief and completely intuitive to how I picture myself responding to news so shocking. In fact, most of the scenes with the king and queen in “Tangled” are non-verbal stuff (if not all, I haven’t checked).

Here’s a very short clip–very short–to illustrate. (Turn down the sound so you can focus). As you watch, notice the guard’s face. His shoulders. His breathing. The way he’s leaned forward. How he nods ever so slightly. Then watch the king and queen, their faces, mouths, hands, and basically what they DO.




From a writing standpoint, that’s serious awesomeness.

Imagine if the guard had burst in and started talking a million miles a minute and the king and queen had gasped and sobbed on each other’s shoulders. We would have shut off to all the drama, right?

If you give your audience too much, it’s just too much, like Tricia said. But you still have to give them something. To use the old adage, “Don’t tell me. Show me.” And this is some serious showing. I counted at least five emotions just by watching their non-verbal cues. How cool is that?

I realize this is a movie, but books can and should be a movie in the readers’ minds. If you can’t see the subtlety in your characters actions, neither will your readers. But…only show us non-verbal cues if it matters to the story. Does it matter that the character is breathing quickly or leaning forward? Does it matter if he’s bouncing his knee? His pencil? If it doesn’t, skip it. Strike that balance. Think through what’s intuitive and if it isn’t working, come back to it later.

The second response comes from my friend Sharon Belknap.

 Sharon:
There is so much to be said in an expression, a hesitation, in the way a person folds his arms or even the length of a breath. (I’m picturing “Tangled” again.) To me, it is so much more imperative to a story to include details like this than the color of the curtains, the layout of a room or even physical features of the characters in the story.

The beauty of writing is that all of those nonverbal clues can be included. You can get inside the head of your characters, something you can’t do nearly as well as in a movie or play. You can follow a character along on a demented journey of wonderings, many of which paths can veer off into unexpected directions or dead end without warning.

That’s one of the things that makes reading and writing so interesting and compelling. I can’t remember feeling weighed down by these non-verbal kinds of details. But maybe that’s just me.

I agree. I love being in character’s heads. In fact, I get frustrated when I read a book and they forget to add in those details–or when I only get those non-verbal cues sporadically and only in the beginning when I haven’t grown to love or understand the character yet.

To go back to “Tangled” (because at this point, why not?), think about the scene where Rapunzel has just broken out of her tower/prison for the first time. If you haven’t noticed this scene before from a writing standpoint, notice it now.

Before you watch this clip, turn down the sound again and pay attention to all non-verbal stuff going on. There’s a whole bunch in there–from both of them.

I love it when a character DOES something and the author doesn’t tell me why, because really, that’s how life is. If someone looks at me and folds their arms, I have to figure out why. What did I say that ticked them off? Or are they even ticked off? Maybe they’re just pensive. Or tired. Or cold. Make your readers wonder—but ONLY if it ADDS to the story. If your character is tired because they stayed up too late cutting their toenails, don’t waste my time telling me UNLESS it’s going to impair their judgment and they fall asleep at the wheel and drive off a cliff to their demise. Okay. You get the idea.

Oh man, I’m so excited for this topic! I have a character I’m working on right now who is not a “man of many words.” This is going to help a ton! And tomorrow I promise no more “Tangled” references. Maybe.

Thanks to Sharon and Tricia for sharing your thoughts.

Tune in tomorrow for more ideas of how to get that 90% of non-verbal communication into your manuscript without weighing it down.

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Author: Rebecca Belliston @rlbelliston

Hopeless romantic and author of CITIZENS OF LOGAN POND, SADIE and AUGUSTINA. Music nerd and composer of RELIGIOUS and CLASSICAL-STYLE music. I live in Michigan with my husband and five kids.

5 thoughts on “90% Non-verbal Stuff — Part 1”

  1. I love this movie! I bawled like a baby with every scene with the King and Queen and I looked for who did their voices on the credits before I realized that… hey, they never had a line.That's awesomeness, that's what it is!

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  2. Yeah you're right, the king and queen in Tanlged never actually speak. Such a good movie!This is a cool topic idea. I think I explain a lot of nonverbal stuff in my WIP, I might change that. Looking forward to the next post!

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