90% Non-verbal Stuff — Part 3

I’m so glad everyone’s enjoying this non-verbal stuff. It’s been so awesome for me to delve into it in such detail. To recap, here are the three questions I posed to some writer friends of mine:

  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?

I’ve been revising my current project at the same time I’ve been thinking about these posts. I keep thinking that a lot of it comes down to one word. BALANCE. Everything in writing is balance—everything in life for that matter, right? but I think this non-verbal stuff especially. It is easy to tip the scale on one side or the other.

For example…

I recently read a book that gave a ton of descriptions about what the characters were doing, how they moved in the scene and how they reacted to things. I could even picture their facial expressions perfectly. The way the author described things was so new and fresh and I was taking mental notes like crazy.

By page 50, nothing had happened. Like seriously, nothing. The MC had gone to a girl’s house, called a parent, walked outside and walked back in without any major plot other than what happened on the very first page. Yet I could tell you how her best friend smiled when she was mad, or how her dad pretended to clean when he was really just eavesdropping.

Yes, in real life 90% of communication might be non-verbal, but it also doesn’t take any time away from a conversation to notice someone folding their arms, or pouting, or picking their nose, or whatever. Your brain is processing everything simultaneously as they are speaking. But in a novel, you can’t read three paragraphs at the same time. Well, maybe you can, but I can’t. I’m forced to read linearly. Dialogue, physical description, action, and little quirks. I want all the non-dialogue in there, but not if it’s 90% of the text!

Growing up, I was a horrible reader. Until I was probably 20, I did this thing where I only read the dialogue. I’d skip from quotation mark to quotation mark until I finished the book. Sadly, the more I liked the book, the faster I read. One time, I even missed a major character’s death. It took me a whole chapter to figure out why everyone was so stinking sad.

Why did I skip the non-dialogue stuff, though? First, because I was a horrible reader (as in below grade-level). But the other reason was because honestly and truly, dialogue is more interesting. Readers like dialogue. Thinking about that led me to another question that I don’t think was covered this week…

Can you convey some of this 90% stuff in your dialogue?

I would say, absolutely.

Take for example these two sentences…

  •  “Katie! Time for dinner!”

Fine. The exclamation points convey some sort of urgency, but it’s fine. You could add some non-verbal cues to beef it up, like a mother with her hands on her hips, stomping one foot angrily (I’ve never done this personally–yeah right).

Or you could beef up the dialogue instead.

  • “Katie Elaine Johnson! You have exactly five seconds to be at this dinner table or your backside is rawhide!”

Sometimes the dialogue is strong enough to imply the hands-on-hips and stomping-foot-mother. With a red face. And steam coming out of my her ears. :)  If you can convey a ‘picture’ of the character just by what they say, then do it. Less is more, right? But if not, then give the reader a gentle, subtle nudge in the right direction.

Now that I’ve matured in my reading abilities, I love nuance, the whole reading-between-the-lines thing. I like seeing what the character is doing as well as what they’re saying. In fact, it adds a lot to the story when it’s done well. But I don’t need a whole lot. Certainly not 90%! Just enough for me to get a feel for the scene and characters. Or in other words:

You don’t have to paint the whole picture. You just have to give the reader enough that their imagination can paint the rest.



Okay. Enough from me.

I hope you don’t think that Ithink I’ve mastered this skill. There’s a reason I wanted to blog about this all week. Good writing is SUPER-DE-DOOPERY hard, but also very rewarding. I really appreciate all the great ideas from everyone else this week. I’ve learned a lot!

To end this week of fun writing tips, I saved one last author’s advice. He has written over thirty books, and is considered one of the top-authors in the LDS market. He also happens to be someone I admire tremendously—and for more than just his writing ability. It’s my dad, Gerald Lund.

I asked him earlier this week, If 90% of all communication is non-verbal, how should authors portray this (without weighing down the manuscript)? He gave a brief, but spot on response that kind of sums up what’s been said this week.

In my mind, you have to describe it verbally through written descriptions, but it’s not so much describing what it looks like as what it does.  This keeps it from getting ponderous.

The key elements in non verbal communication are the eyes, the eyebrows, the face, the mouth, the voice, a turn of the head, the hands, body movements, body tension or lack of it, mannerisms, etc.  These only take a phrase or two to convey what is needed.

And to show how he’s done it in his books, here’s a few notes I’ve added to my Excel file from his writing over the years::

–From the look on her face, she took that as well as a cat takes to having its tail pulled.  (this is one of my favorites from Freedom Factor)

–“Hello.” Good start, he thought with an inward smile. The tone in her voice had lowered the outside temperature by no more than five degrees. (There’s some banter here, and then…) The temperature dropped five more degrees.

–She raised to her full height and looked him in the eye, chin jutted out.

–McBride stood there for another moment, jaw working, his face mottled with rage. Then he spun on his heel and went out, slamming the door hard enough to make the windows rattle.

Thanks again to Sharon, Tricia, Cassie, Sarah, and Dad for adding your thoughts to mine this week. It’s been awesome!!!! If you have more ideas, feel free to share them in the comments section.

Happy writing!

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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.

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