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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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Confidence is another area where the body is better at communicating intent than dialogue. Consider how easy it is to read attitudes in the following examples that re-use the exact same lines of dialogue:

The week after Ty beat Martin in a game of hoops, 15-7, he walked out onto the court to find Ty standing there, waiting for some one-on-one. “You back out here for some more?” Ty asked.

Martin looked at the courts. They were empty, so he shrugged his shoulders, then let them fall. “Sure,” he said. “Let’s go.”

But if you change the gestures, you change the meaning. 

The week after Ty beat Martin in a game of hoops, 15-7, he walked out onto the court to find Ty standing there, waiting for some one-on-one. “You back out here for some more?” Ty asked.

Martin looked at the courts. They were empty, so he took a step forward and pulled back his shoulders. “Sure,” he said. He waited a moment, lifting his chin a little. “Let’s go.” 

In both versions, Martin’s emotional state, rising up out of either a sense of looming defeat or a bristling confidence, is communicated far more in the gestures, not the dialogue. Submissive gestures are expressed by the body folding in on itself, often at the shoulders, and moving away from possible aggression or conflict. Gestures of confidence include hands on hips, perhaps an inflated chest, and an overall posture in which the body takes up a good deal of space. Beyond this, the lifting of the chin is a muted cultural signal, at least in America, of competition or aggression. For the reader, the complexity of the message is amassed from the dialogue paired with the gesture. This is typically how fully realized scenes in contemporary fiction arrange themselves on the page, this combination of language and gesture. 

I should also point out there are scenes in which the language of the body becomes a type of dialogue by itself, when gesture replaces words. 

“It was a difficult time,” Lucas said. “My mom, you know. Those last weeks.” He sat there, head down, hair falling across his eyes, then he placed his hands on the table, one on top of the other, as though the experience was something he was not yet able to describe.

There are also situations in which the body communicates a message all by itself, without any dialogue. 

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“Hey, Joe,” I asked, “you going to the party tonight?” Joe turned away, lowered his eyes to the ground, then shrugged his shoulders with disinterest. 

In this, gesture becomes an intentional way of speaking. 

Lastly, there are situations in which the body gives away more information than a character understands. 

Norm watched the man move down the street, his feet spread wide on the concrete, his back unusually stiff; then, he noticed how the man kept his hands near his waist, fingers a little too open. Norm was fairly sure the man had a gun or maybe a knife tucked under his belt.

Like most people who are unaccustomed to carrying a weapon, the man wants to keep his hands near it, and in doing so, his body sends a clear message to Norm.

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