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Writing effective nonverbal communication in fiction

How to let the body speak on the page.

A variety of colorful illustrated faces show off body language in motion
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The traditions of dialogue in fiction are deeply tied to the traditions of stage drama. A script for a stage play, for example, presents lines of dialogue, often without interruption, inside of a single scene. Modern scripts for TV and film are handled in a similar fashion. A playwright defines the language, but an actor interprets the lines with meaningful facial expression, movement, and bodily gesture. In other words, an actor brings a deeper meaning to the script through movement – but in fiction, these jobs fall to writers and their ability to describe how people communicate with both voice and action.

As humans, we are hardwired to visually observe our world, to understand it through sight and sound, by watching what people do, not just what they say. This is likely part of our biological background, dating back to our ancestorial lives as animals. Animals often communicate with their bodies, and even after the invention of spoken language, we, as sophisticated human creatures, communicate with our bodies as well. But a curious thing happened as fiction was inventing itself as a popular form of entertainment in the 19th century: New writers of fiction looked to the format of scripts to arrange many sections of dialogue. For example, if you look through the work of classic American novelist Herman Melville, you’ll find long passages of description followed by long sections of dialogue in which the text reveals only what characters say. You’ll also find this in classic American novelists such as Kate Chopin, Henry James, and others, with sections of dialogue separated from passages of narrative description. But this is generally not how people in real life experience conversations and understand the meaning of an exchange.

In the 1950s, researcher Albert Mehrabian performed a study to better understand how individuals assemble meaning from conversations. His study found that only 7% of participants, when receiving a spoken message, primarily focused on the speaker’s words; 38% focused on the verbal tone; and 55%, by far the largest group, focused on body language. Yet a great deal of fiction, when relating a conversation, still focuses most, if not all, of its text on the words spoken, even though humans, as a species, have developed perceptual skills to coordinate meaning between what they hear and what they see.

If you were to read a passage in a novel set in a museum in which one character asked, “What do you think of that painting?” to which his friend replied, “That one there? It’s great,” you’d naturally think a character was expressing quiet and somewhat quick admiration for a work of art. But if you take the friend’s response and contextualize it with gesture – essentially the visual interpretation that an actor brings to a film performance – the message can take on a range of more nuanced and compelling meanings. 

When the message of the body is at odds with the message of the mouth, most people believe the body.

Take a look at this example of how the language of the body redirects how a reader understands the scene with a greater level of complexity.

“What do you think of that painting?”

“That one there?” his friend confirmed. He considered it, lifting a dull eyebrow and arranging his lips into a practiced smile. “It’s great.”

In this example, it’s clear that the textual message – “it’s great” – is at odds with the message of his body. His face clearly says that he doesn’t think much of the painting, even though, perhaps to be polite, he is claiming he does. When the message of the body is at odds with the message of the mouth, most people believe the body. This generally is what we, as people, do: We observe conflicting or complex messages, understand the nuances, and make sense of them. 

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