I’m a sucker for nonverbal cues in stories. Give me a meaningful look between characters on screen, or a hesitant touch of a hand on a shoulder on the page any day. I’ll take them before your declarations of grievance, proclamations of love, or long-winded monologues unpacking [insert basically any emotion here]. Maybe it’s that I grew up in a house where we didn’t actually talk about our feelings, or maybe it’s that I’m actually a rather emotionally awkward human, but silent gestures tend to speak far more loudly for my characters than their words.
This has its downsides, of course. My first drafts have enough stage direction to qualify as lost Lorraine Hansberry scripts. They’re so thick on the ground, my first copy editor dropped a note in the margins of one scene, musing about “whether eyebrows actually possess the communicative powers these dialogue tags insist upon.”
(They do, Jeff. They absolutely do.)
In the context of COVID-19 quarantine with my husbeast and two children, I’ve been reflecting a lot on communication—particularly failures of communication. In my extremely scientific study of our habits in captivity, I’ve come to realize my family argues much less about “what do you mean by that, exactly?” when we don’t use words at all.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. Even in social media communications, which typically depend upon the written word to at least some extent (I’m looking at you, Facebook and Twitter), we’ve found ways to add things that aren’t (strictly speaking) words to our language. Emoji. GIFs. Meme structures, as a kind of grammar emotions and situations to sit inside of. We do it because we know, as amazing as verbal language is, sometimes an angry emoticon or Chris Pratt’s Parks and Rec era “oh, snap!” face are actually pitch perfect.
A lot of other teachers and editors might cringe at what I’m about to do. They’ve spent hours encouraging developing writers to “just use said because it’s invisible.” (I don’t actually quite agree on that point, but that’s another argument.) Let them fume. If you’re looking for something that goes beyond words—something that doesn’t even need dialogue to tag because it’s a manifesto by itself—this article is for you.
I’ve written about how to handle dialogue in SFF before, in two parts, no less! Here’s the companion piece: a list (absolutely not exhaustive) of nonverbal interactions your characters can use to say a lot more than they are actually “saying.”
Oh, and by the way:
- A waiter takes away a character’s plate before they’re done with it and whisks off before they can be stopped.
- One character kicks another under the table [force and expression will dictate whether it’s punitive or encouraging].
- Character suddenly breaks eye contact during dialogue.
- A character walks into a room where another character is sleeping. They pause to adjust the sleeper’s blanket.
- One character is lying down, staring at the [ceiling, stars, sky, whatever]. The other character lies down next to them, saying nothing. [Use head-to-foot orientation, space between to add nuance.This works better if both characters are on their backs. The lack of eye contact is key.]
- A character brings another character a glass of water. It wasn’t asked for. It is not commented upon. But the recipient notices it happened.
- A character moves over on a piece of furniture to give room.
- OR, a character “spreads” on a piece of furniture when someone else enters the room.
- There are snacks. They are offered/protected with near deadly force/ “shared” grudgingly/watched in a suspicious detente.
- Someone destroys an object, or discards it. Someone else retrieves it/its pieces.
- Rather than answering a question, a character stares, stands up, and simply leaves. [Storming off is always LESS evocative than a collected retreat, IMHO.]
- Someone puts a blanket/jacket/other covering over someone else, unasked, noticing their needs. No one comments upon it.
- A character leaves something behind for another character to take—unexpected, of perhaps small value, but of real significance. [I call this the “here is your mouse” move, in tribute to cats and their weird-ass notions of love.]
- Spontaneous game! Why are you poking me/shoving me/making weird faces at me? I don’t know! But you’re grinning, and it’s sort of mischievous, and now we will devolve into a pile of puppies.
- One character at a dinner table is always the last to be served—even when it might make more sense to serve them first.
- The character keeps getting second helpings. They did not ask for them.
- One character gets the attention of the other. If asked “what?” they’ll reply, “it’s nothing.” [NB., It is never nothing.]
- A character is noticed looking at another character. The gaze itself is [protective/curious/hostile/admiring/longing/uncertain/regretful]. Absolutely no conversation about that gaze will follow—or at least, not for a very long time after.
- A character does/doesn’t douse their cigar/cigarette/other smoking device in response to meeting another character.
- Low-key auntie-style Bill-Paying/Tip-Leaving Warfare. It proceeds like a subway platform shell game, full of covert, unremarked movements. [There Can Be Only One victor or, alternatively, everyone loses.]
- Spontaneous, Come-From-Behind Shoulder Massage [The setup always determines whether this is acceptable and positive or terrible and creepy; bonus points for the character’s initial reaction changing over the course of the experience, positively or negatively].
In your next piece of writing, try challenging yourself by making characters talk with more than their words. It could be fun, at least if you’re interested in what interests me about characters. (Everything. The answer to this is “everything interests me about characters.” Give me all the characters.)
I’m off now to figure out what nonverbal best says “everyone in this house needs to get up and get to digital work/school now, dammit.”