Writing Tip: Keep Their Hands Busy

As I edit my novels, especially as I near the last few sweeps through, I take a close look at DIALOGUE TAGS (he said, she asked) and BEATS (pauses to break up dialogue: She sifted through her purse, hoping to calm her nerves before she said something she’d regret). 

I’ve noticed that in scenes where dialogue tags and beats flow better–and are easier to write–the character is usually doing something with their hands. Like the example above where the woman sifted through her purse.

It’s a simple tactic.

Continue reading “Writing Tip: Keep Their Hands Busy”


MBM: Constructing Context Clues by Charissa Stastny

This is the last week of March Book Madness. (If you’ve missed any posts, you can catch the schedule and explanation at the bottom.)

Today my friend, Charissa Stastny, is here talking about how language can be both a barrier and a bridge to communication. Char is so sweet, and very supportive and helpful in the writing community. Check out her blog for great ideas. She wrote an awesome post last year for March Book Madness about weeding our words. (See the link below this post).


Charissa Stastny

In real life, words can take on so many meanings. Think of text messages that are used for a large part of communication. When one of my daughters was having a long distance relationship with a boy for a few months, they texted like crazy. They also fought about a lot of those texts.

I wondered why this was, and realized that words don’t convey emotion perfectly as we like to assume they do. They’re easily misunderstood when taken out of context.

Words are the basic building blocks of communication. When they are constructed carefully, they bridge the gap between us and others, welcoming them into our creative worlds. But when tossed around haphazardly, they can become piles of worthless rubble that hinder others from understanding us.

In order to be understood by others, we must also make sure we are not misunderstood.

Continue reading “MBM: Constructing Context Clues by Charissa Stastny”

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!

90% Non-verbal Stuff — Part 2

In case you missed it, this week I’m focusing on some writing advice from people/authors I really like and admire. I asked each of them three 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?

Part One of this topic was covered yesterday. (Check it out here.) Today is Part Two!

The first bit of advice comes from my talented friend Cassie Mae. Check out her blog here. Take it away Cassie.

1)     A lot of authors give their characters a quirk.  Something that tells the reader that the specific character is this when they do this.

For example, in Fallen by Lauren Kate, the mc (Luce) cracks her knuckles whenever she gets nervous or uncomfortable.  Not only did this send an awesome sound ringing through my ears, it told me exactly how she reacted to a certain situation.

2)    Haha, should have read the second question before answering the previous one.  But yes, in lots and lots of books, there are silent conversations all the time.  A lot of things are said in a simple expression.  The cock of an eyebrow, mouth hanging open, a huge goofy grin, clicking of teeth.  And then there’s what happens below the face.  Tapping feet, pacing, hands on the hips, shivering.  All that stuff can be blended together without the author saying… I was frustrated.

3) I really rely on using the five senses when I do nonverbal communication. Sounds, tastes, touch, sight, and smells. Without getting too flowery over it, an author can properly express how the mc or the other characters are feeling using their senses.

And when I see that what I’ve written in 20 words can still be conveyed in 10, I do some chopping.

And of course, as I said before, I give them each a quirk.  :)

Awesome, Cassie. I love character quirks, too. Especially nervous habits.

When I first started writing, I started reading like a mad woman, trying to see how other authors said certain things. Probably the most valuable thing I did was take notes. If something worked, I jotted down what it was and what I liked about it. Then I started compiling an Excel spreadsheet (because I’m addicted to Excel) and categorizing each aspect of the quote. For example, I would log which emotion it fell under, which part of the body (eyes, mouth, feet), what action they were doing at the time, which verb was used, which adjective or adverb. Then I could sort for all the “Nervous” quotes and see how other authors explained someone was nervous without saying, “Hey, she’s nervous. Really nervous. Really, really, really, really…”

To give you an idea of how crazy I was/am, I have 840 logged quotes in this file right now, with 69 of those being classified under Nervous/Hesitant. (Wow. There’s a bunch of nervous characters out there.)

Like Cassie said, there are lots and lots of ways authors say things between the lines. Start looking and, if you want, make an Excel file of your own.

The second bit of advice today comes from my writing partner (and sister-in-law) Sarah Belliston.


I ran into this problem with my WIP when I searched for the word “look”. I found that my characters were doing a whole lot of looking. “Glare” was a big one too. But gosh darn it they were angry! They needed to glare! At everyone! All the time! (watch out for overusing exclamation points too). Apart from having an angst-ridden story, I was being wholly uncreative. The only way I was conveying emotion was telling the reader what their bodies were doing. (There are only so many ways you can describe furrowed eyebrows.) Here’s an example not from my story.

Jane walked down the hall and saw her boyfriend Tom with his arm around Wanda. She crossed her arms and glared at them as she passed.

I started to look through my scenes truly from the character’s POV. How would an angry person describe seeing her boyfriend’s arm around another girl? How would she walk down the hall if she was furious? What would she think Wanda looked like at that moment?

Jane paced her steps, forced her feet to keep time with the others, kept them from running to Tom like they wanted to. Just when she trusted them to mind her wishes, she caught a glimpse of red and gold. His letterman jacket. But it didn’t look right, it wasn’t filled and tight across his shoulders, it was baggy and loose on a much smaller frame. Jane’s feet forgot what they were supposed to do, she stood still in the middle of the moving stream of people. A blonde head was atop the jacket, the sound of breaking glass was laughter coming from its mouth, a mouth too close to Tom’s perfect hair. Then a strong arm that should have filled the jacket, Tom’s arm, snaked across the flimsy shoulders of the blonde head. Jane still stood in the hallway, the stream complained and Tom’s pathetic smile faded from his face. The blonde head cried out when his arm gripped her like a vice. She shrank against the lockers as she met Jane’s eyes.

Get the difference? Without saying it, you knew that Jane was glaring at her.

Think about the verbs you are using, think about how you describe the setting. Is the rain falling? Or is pounding? Slapping the cement? Soaking the ground? Some physical movement is needed, but when you have the ability to be inside the character’s head, coloring the world with their view, you don’t need non-verbal cues to tell us what they are thinking.

It’s the same for whoever they interact with.

As humans we process, dismiss, and evaluate a large portion of what we see every day without consciously acknowledging it. It’s the same with non-verbal cues. I know when my husband walks through the door what kind of day he’s had. I notice the sagged shoulders, the blank expression, the way he sits his bag down. But I do it all in a matter of seconds. Then I move on to asking how his day was.

When writing a scene, setting up emotion should be measured. Does the main character notice the shoulders, but not the expression? Does she notice anything or is she too busy making dinner, so when she asks about his day, she’s shocked by his sullen response? Or is this an important day and she is waiting for his homecoming and reaction with bated breath?

I once read a book that used the metaphor “looked like a kicked puppy” three times in 400 pages. That was still often enough to make me notice and remember, even though the author probably had no idea she’d repeated herself. If you come up with a particularly good metaphor, only use it once! It will have more impact. Then think of more to use at other times.

In the end, variety is what makes a book great. Using different methods and different words. Always looking for the best way to tell the story. The beauty of it is that we all have something different to say. That’s why we keep writing.

So great! Get inside your character’s head. Imagine you’re in their shoes—literally—and then write. And as Sarah so beautifully illustrated, how you tell a story is just as important (if not more) as the story itself. There was a huge difference between her first Jane example and the second.

My short bit of advice for the day: watch people.

No, not in a creepy, stalker-ish kind of way. Maybe the better word is ‘notice.’ Notice how people act when they’re angry, sad, nervous, or depressed. Pay attention to your friends, your kids, even the lady at the story, when their words and their body language don’t match up. And like I said before, make sure you read a lot. There are authors who have mastered this craft and half the time you won’t notice the non-verbal stuff unless you’re looking for it. Then take notes so that when you’re in a heated scene and you just can’t think of how to express the intensity of emotion, you’ll have some ideas of where to turn (please don’t plagiarize, these notes are just to spark your imagination).

Remember, non-verbal cues are NON-VERBAL. Don’t tell me what I can “see” for myself.
And just for a laugh, I had to include this chart because it demonstrates this point so well (though I don’t agree with the assessment.)

What kind of characters do you have?

Thanks again to Cassie and Sarah for adding your amazing thoughts here for our benefit!! And Tricia and Sharon yesterday as well. You guys are awesome!

Tomorrow, advice from another author and then a little (or a lot) more from me.

If you have some thoughts or advice on the three questions you’d like to throw into the mix, please comment below. We’re all in this crazy writing world together. Thankfully. :)

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.

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.

6 websites for authors to create an online (1)

If 90% of all communication is non-verbal…

My younger kids have a day off of school due to inclement weather. It’s barely raining outside. Now I realize rain in January is VERY odd for Michigan, but this has been a very odd year and really, no-snow is a good thing. A great thing! All I can figure is that the power must have gone off at their school. Either way, I now have kids at home that I wasn’t planning on. Personally, I LOVE days like this. First off, I don’t have to leave my house. I’m such a homebody so this is a huge bonus. Secondly, I love hanging out in pajamas and watching dumb movies with my kids–even playing a game of SORRY or two. Awesome!

Why am I telling you? Well, I try not to post on days my kids are home because otherwise, I would get hooked to my computer screen and forget to do all those pajama-esque type activities (although I sit at my computer in PJs plenty enough, but you get the idea). That means the post I was going to do today, I’ll save for tomorrow. But I still wanted to ask a quick question to get your thoughts rolling on the subject. It’s on writing.

If 90% of all communication is non-verbal, how should authors portray this? 

How have you seen this done in other books? 

What tricks have you tried personally that worked without weighing down the manuscript?

I will be asking some writer friends to give their thoughts on this as well since I’m looking for ideas at the same time I’m sharing my own. Comment below if you want me to share some of your ideas in tomorrow’s post. The more ideas, the better, because I think this is one of the hardest things to do as a writer, but also the most powerful.

See you tomorrow!