Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Power of the Unsaid Word

Did you know that the majority of our communication is nonverbal? I learnt that during my years studying speech and drama. And it’s just as important to keep in mind when writing. Straight dialogue can be boring, but incorporating other forms of communication could bring your scenes to life.

Physical ways to communicate
Body language: The way a person carries themselves says a lot about that person. Someone who hunches may be disappointed or may not want to be noticed. Someone who fidgets may be nervous about something. Someone who walks with their head high may be self confident. There are countless variations.

Facial Expressions: This could include whether or not someone makes eye contact. A frown could indicate anger or suspicion or deep thought. A smile can be charming or frightening.

Hand gestures: a wave can say hello, goodbye, or go away. A tight-gripped hand shake can be a challenge or show confidence. Giving someone the finger can be a statement against authority, and a salute can show sarcasm.

Action: the way a person does something. For example, a person slamming doors is either in a hurry or angry. A person stabbing at their food could be restless, angry or bored. A character could say one thing and do the opposite.

Nonverbal elements of speech
Tone: There is a reason why emoticons came into being. Those little smileys brought tone back to text based communication and helped to avoid misunderstandings. Tone can differentiate between sarcasm, anger and joy.

Pauses: the things left unsaid. These often speak louder than the spoken word.

Grunts and sighs: These are understood in any language.

Rhythm and inflections: For example, slow speech could indicate warning, barely contained anger, a lower education.

The use of language: For example, the use of bad grammar, swearing, verbosity, formality, informality. Among other things, the use of language could say any number of things about a character.

Which nonverbal tools do you favour in your writing? Which do you shy away from? Do you think some are harder to incorporate than others?

41 comments:

  1. this really is a very interesting topic, and something that a lot of writers often forget about. It's also very important not to get repetitive in a book when using all these elements.

    I love when characters use different language, which doesn't happen often. I also love it as a translator, since it gives me a chance to play a bit myself :)

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  2. I think it's hard to keep a balance between too much and not enough, but I do like to incorporate non verbal communication whether with dialogue or without.

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  3. I adore writing dialogue but have so much to learn still - like how not to try and capture a dialect/accent if one is not familiar with such things! LOL!

    I would like to think that I use all these non-verbal tools you state here so wonderfully to convey a mood!! Hopefully! Take care
    x

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  4. What a great post! I love nonverbal communication.

    ...In fact, I may be guilty of leaving too much to the eyes in my MS. I'm still working on it. ;)

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  5. I read it's 20% verbal and 80% body language. That's why I try to put as much body language and actions in my novels. I don't always succeed and my editor hates when I use "he/she smiled" because it's so vague.

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  6. I would say that, to me, tone is a very useful tool. The rhythm part can be overdone if not careful.

    This was a very useful post. Thank You.

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  7. I would say that, to me, tone is a very useful tool. The rhythm part can be overdone if not careful.

    This was a very useful post. Thank You.

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  8. Excellent things to consider! Funny, I remember an editor stating that she hated animal noises coming out of people and would make her authors change words like growl, bark, grunt, etc.
    And it was nice to see you post on your other blog recently!

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  9. I find it interesting when an author incorporates cultural significance to those silences, pauses, gestures, etc.; what is seen in one country could be offensive in another, or just mean nothing. (Same with made-up worlds.) Those seem harder to use, since all those meanings have to be explained to the reader--and that could bog things down.

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  10. It's definitely true that body language is important. I think as writers we have to be careful with what types of body language we use, and how much. It's easy to misinterpret body language when we don't actually see it, so it's important to get it right. And I know I personally tend to overuse certain ones. Thanks for this list, though, this is really helpful!

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  11. I'm definitely guilty of putting in dialogue that doesn't actually have to be there, but I still have a ton of nonverbal communication present in addition to it. I'm learning that usually, the nonverbal communication does loads more for the story than anything the character could say would. I'm slowly learning how to not treat my readers like they're five-year-olds and need everything spelled out :)

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  12. Excellent examples. I try to be aware of non-verbal cues. Expressions are a big one.

    Emoticons are great for clearing up tone!

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  13. Yes, great post... and awesome examples.

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  14. This makes me wonder about the gulf of communication that widens when interacting solely online.

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  15. My favourite is using character quirks to show their underlying emotion e.g. a character who cracks his knuckles whenever he's stressed, or someone who bounded on the balls of their feet when they're excited.

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  16. Dezzy, anything repetiitive in a story (unless designed that way on purpose) can be bad.

    mshatch, it is a difficult balance.

    Old Kitty, oh yes! that could be a post on its own: capturing dialect.

    Carrie, I do the same, but it's good to mix it up.

    Clarissa, and a smile could mean so many different things ;)

    Anthony, tone is difficult to convey when it's just text.

    Alex, haha that's defintely a personal preference. Re my other blog, I'd written a whole bunch of devotionals because I had stars in my eyes about publishing a daily devotional (before I decided to become a fiction writer). I discovered they are almost impossible to get published unless you are "someone". Consequently I have plenty of material to post, but I don't have a whole lot of time to maintain the blog ie, responding to comments, so I feel bad. This blog takes up most of my time.

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  17. Golden, yup, anything that bogs down the story should be reworked or reconsidered.

    Shallee, yeah, it's easy to fall back on the favourite ones.

    Tiffany, haha that's a great way of putting it.

    Theresa, being an online gamer, I quickly learnt the importance of emoticons ;)

    Jeff, thanks

    Suze, yep, that's why we need to be especially careful.

    Jamies, yes! Great examples.

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  18. I like to try and communicate things in my stories through my characters gestures and physical mannerisms. Sometimes I try to use facial expressions but those can be harder for me depending on what I'm trying to communicate.

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  19. Some actions can be hard to describe in writing, even when they are very familiar and common. I definitely try to incorporate nonverbal communication in my stories, though.

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  20. This is one of those areas that can make a huge difference when it's done well--it's not something the reader often notices, but it really creates a visual. I'm definitely focused on this at the moment, and on eliminating my character's physical tics. Gosh, they shift their weight from one foot to the other a lot...

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  21. So much is left out of emails and the written communication. And we have to realize this when we write!

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  22. My only problem with non-verbal communication is that once you know what certain gestures mean, you become conscious of using them and consequently run the risk of appearing to be insincere... if you know what I mean.

    It's difficult to get a balance in writing between using non-verbal gestures and over-using them.

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  23. It's funny. Every time I have attempted "the things left unsaid" crit partners say, "Really, I think you need to explain that." Back to work ...

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  24. Lynda - great post, as always. I love writing dialogue. Writing the unsaid is always a work in progress for me! Thanks for all that you share!

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  25. Fascinating post, Linda. I think we all know these things but as writers we forget to use them enough on the page, methinks...

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  26. Very true, non-verbal actions are essential for communication in both real life and stories. I have a partially autistic cousin and it's difficult for her to understand people oftentimes because she doesn't pick up the non-verbal signals the rest of us do.

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  27. Great post! What fascinates me is when a character SAYS one thing and his/her nonverbal language contradicts that. If you write a scene carefully, you can convey exactly the opposite about a character that his/her words say. You can convey that your character is hiding something, feeling embarrassed, or being downright malevolent. ;o)

    I think my characters sigh a lot, which I have to weed out later!

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  28. I love when I read books where the author hasn't ignored all of this stuff. It adds so much to a book! This is a great list. I never really thought about how much studying speech and drama could aid in writing!

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  29. Physical aspects of communicating are far easier to use than the non-verbal elements in my opinion. They are more obvious and easier to show. Nuances of inflection, language, tone, etc. can often go unnoticed by some readers and require greater skill to put across successfully. These are excellent things to consider in writing passages of dialogue.


    Lee
    Tossing It Out

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  30. I'm always looking for a new body language to incorporate into my writing to convey the character's message, and I find it quite challenging. That's why I like to watch people on reality shows and even actors, to see what they do. I really like how you brought up tone and inflection. Those are important, too.

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  31. Jasmine, yes, I do like the use of gestures and actions.

    Shannon, yes, they can be. It's worth it, though.

    Amie, yes, exactly, it does create a visual.

    Laura, exactly

    Rosalind, haha yes, so true.

    Stacy, I get that a lot as well ;) I don't think everything has to be spelled out, but it's always good to get a 2nd opinion.

    Maeve, hope it helps

    Pat, it's easy enough to forget when we get caught up in the words.

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  32. Mark, I imagine that would heighten your awareness to it.

    Carol, yes, I love the contradictions people make! And I especially love it when it's used in stories.

    Peggy, I originally studied speech and drama because I thought I wanted to become an actress. LOL. The things I learnt have definitely helped me in writing.

    Lee, those nuances of language are subtle, but they do convey character to speech. I'm not sure I've mastered that aspect yet.

    Lynn, people watching (wherever it might be) is important for a writer.

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  33. I play games (with myself) when I'm out and I get a moment to people watch... I look for new ways to describe facial expressions and body language.
    Pauses are something I could get better at writing.

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  34. Amazing, isn't it? Since my day job includes sitting through public meetings, I have to really try and couch my expression and give away what I really think.

    Wonderful post.

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  35. great thoughts.
    I sometimes find my dialog gets too long and have to break it up.

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  36. What a wonderful advice. It's amazing how much of a difference our body language makes even in writing. I've been practicing with this lately during my final edit. It's quite fun...great way to hook the reader and suck him in. :)

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  37. great, great, SUPER tips. And you know how when some people get angry or flustered, they lose proper speech? (Like revert to regional dialect?) I'm thinking of using that trick... :D <3

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  38. Interesting things to think about. We tend to take body language for granted, not realizing just how much we convey without saying anything. In my writing I try to use the body to convey what a woman is feeling about someone she's interested in but not ready to let into her life - the crossing of arms and a refusal to look directly into the eyes, for example.

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  39. Intersting! I try to strike a balance between tone/ expression and body language. Writing dialogue is so hard!

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  40. Michelle, that's a great exercise.

    Donna, hahaha yes, I can imagine ;)

    Al, yes, I could write another post on that alone ;)

    Laila, it does hook the reader.

    LTM, yes! Another great trick!

    J L Campbell, fantastic example.

    Talli, it's certainly not as easy as it looks ;)

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  41. Yup, important not to move the eyes too much, or get too repetitive. Used with dialogue in the right spots can add emphasis where you went it though.

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I'd love to hear your opinion. Thanks for leaving a comment.