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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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Beyond an added layer of visual realism, this type of gesture asks the reader to take a more active – and, therefore, more interesting – role in reading a short story or a novel. In the first example, without any body language, the passage can only have one meaning, where the friend is quickly admiring the painting. This is the type of writing strategy that you’d find in middle grade readers for people 12 and younger, one where the text holds the entire meaning. But in the second example – more typically found in books directed to a young adult or adult audience – the reader assembles a fuller meaning of important scenes by making judgments about what people say and how they act.

In a script for TV or film, an actor would bring nuanced actions into the drama, through expression, movement, and gesture, but in fiction, nuanced action – if it is to exist at all – needs to be created by the writer through careful observation and effective language.

Charles Darwin proposed that certain facial expressions were universal presentations of basic human emotions. Even though we rely on language now for more precise communication, we still carry the facial gestures of our cultural ancestors. These basic expressions, when well-described, are fairly easy to define in fiction. The following facial expression, in any culture, would likely be read as a sign of happiness or joy: Walking outside and seeing her brother for the first time in a year, Alexandra lifted her lips until lines appeared at the corners of her eyes. 

People in all cultures have similar facial cues for happiness or joy: These are genetically programmed into us as a species. People are also good at distinguishing a true smile from a performative one. One of the key factors that separates the two is that when experiencing happiness, people tend to smile in such a way that the skin at the corner of their eyes tightens and the muscles above their cheekbones swell. When people perform happiness, often to appear pleasant or hide their true reactions, they typically only lift their lips so that that the smile doesn’t affect their eyes.

Anger is another universal expression that can be described without much interpretation: Walking outside and seeing her brother for the first time in a year, Alexandra lowered her eyebrows firmly across her eyes, and her lips hardened into a thin line. 

Other universal expressions include surprise (often expressed by a widening of the eyes and mouth), contempt (with its telltale smirk-like, off-center smile), disgust (with the wrinkling of the nose), sadness (with the downturned mouth and the puckering of the chin), and fear (with the eyes and nostrils wide open to better take in images and smells). These expressions, quickly understood by a reader, can be easily layered into a scene, but more complicated expressions and gestures are often arranged and interpreted by context or culture. Emotionally complex drama requires a more sophisticated approach to convey meaning through the description of a character’s body. 

Manipulators are a type of gesture that people will often engage when they are anxious, stressed, or uncomfortable, such as hand wringing, neck rubbing, or chin scratching. Again, in the following passage, notice how the language of the body offers a different message than the language of the mouth. 

When Abel walked into his mother’s bedroom, he found her standing before the mirror, wearing a neatly pressed blouse and pleated skirt. “You ready for your interview?” he asked. 

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She turned to him, bringing her hands together and then twisting a ring around her finger twice before speaking. “Yes,” she said, “I am.”

It’s that gesture, twisting the ring around her finger, another common manipulator – when we’re stressed, we tend to touch our bodies, as we find it comforting – that reveals her anxiety over the interview. Again, the body often offers the truth while the mouth conceals it. 

Nervous behaviors can be an effective way to dramatize anxiety in which the body presents a message more powerful and direct than the message found in spoken language. Consider how the following actions would contextualize dialogue found elsewhere in the scene. A mother who, explaining her husband’s sudden absence to her young daughter, winds and then unwinds a dish towel around two fingers. A salesman who, asked about the effectiveness of his products, first tightens his tie. A wife, when asked about her night out with the girls, first rubs the bridge of her nose with weariness before answering the question. All of these gestures signal to readers that the information they are about to receive should be handled with critical skepticism as it may – or may not – be filtered through a character’s need to alter, improve, or omit details, even if they aren’t strictly telling a lie.

There is no universal gesture that indicates when a person is telling the truth or offering a falsehood, but there is a range of gestures that may suggest a person is being untruthful.

Lying – or rather, the conscious intent to purposefully deceive – is also an area where character action deepens the reading experience. There is no universal gesture that indicates when a person is telling the truth or offering a falsehood, but there is a range of gestures that may suggest a person is being untruthful. Children who are lying tend not to look people in the eye, but adults do, as they’ve been taught that the absence of eye contact can be construed as a sign of lying. Adults, when telling lies, might try to control their eye connections in a way that seems slightly forced. Liars also tend to take slightly longer to answer a question and add more space between their words, largely because they need more time to think through their answer than a person telling the truth. 

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Elizabeth told me that her night out with the girls went pretty well but then looked out the window. Her eyes focused on something far away before explaining that they sang ’80s songs at a karaoke bar and had a few margaritas. 

It’s easy to see there, that pause, as Elizabeth needs a second to form the specific details that ornament her lie. In terms of body movement, most people, when telling a lie, tend to use their hands less, again because they are focused on making their words believable. 

She said that she only sang one number, one of her old standbys, that song by Janet Jackson, but as she said this, she leaned against the wall, softly, as though her night was somehow less exciting than she’d hoped. 

Here, the narrator observes that the message of the body and the message of the mouth aren’t in alignment, which is a strong indication that something is not right here, even if neither the narrator nor the readers yet know what it is.

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