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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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In most of the examples so far, the gestures have been presented as though their meaning is innate and easily understood by readers without additional explanation. But there may be occasions when it’s useful to both offer a gesture and then to interpret it for your readers. You may find this useful when you are pairing a new meaning to a familiar gesture. 

He smiled, cocking his head to the side, in a way that conveyed menace. 

After all, smiling and menace don’t naturally go together. But more likely, you’ll use interpretive language to specify a gesture that may not have a universal meaning. 

He raised a single eyebrow with skepticism. 

Or: 

He eyed the boy across the room, daring him not to look away. 

Concerns of audience may also lead you to interpret more gestures and expressions for your readers. In middle grade, nearly all action is explained, as the reading audience is often too young to interpret gestural cues on their own. In young adult, writers tend to interpret some – but certainly not all – of the gestures to ensure that the story is easily understood by all readers from the age of 13 to 113. In a similar fashion, fast-paced books – such as some mystery novels and thrillers – will often interpret gestures as a way of helping readers to turn pages quickly. Literary fiction, however, rarely interprets gestures and instead allows readers, through their skills of observation, to assemble meaning, guided by well-placed details.

Many years ago, when I started writing – when I saw it as something more than a hobby – I took a class where, week after week, we were assigned exercises in which we explored the dramatic subtext of fiction, those messages that rest beneath the language of a story. Write a scene in which your narrator asks a girl on a date; she accepts, but her actions reveal a reluctance. Or: Write a scene in which your narrator takes his mother out to dinner on the anniversary of her husband’s death; they don’t talk about his passing, but her actions reveal her emotions. But the most effective exercise we did that year was focused on people-watching: For three months, we spent 15 minutes each day observing people – at coffee shops or out at the park – and noticed how their bodies moved, what their faces said. We considered ways that language could describe their actions with clarity and, more importantly, how such descriptions can point to a larger range of emotion, thought, and intention that exists inside of them. It was through this exercise that we, as students, became keen observers of body language, developing descriptions and observations that later occupied our fiction.

In the 21st century, we are more involved with visual narratives than we are with written fiction, even though written fiction remains a large part of our cultural lives. The vast majority of the population has watched more movies than they’ve read books. Because of this, we’ve become experts on how movies are made. Films are a collaborative art form in which each artist or technician has a unique job. The scriptwriter writes the story and the dialogue. The actors interpret the dialogue with gesture, action, and speech. The art director conceives the overall visual concept for the film, which is then realized by location scouts, set designers, and set dressers. Costume designers makes clothes that characters will wear. And the cinematographer, along with the director, decides how the image will be framed for the audience. Fiction typically, though, is not a collaborative art: To create fully realized scenes, the fiction writer needs to accomplish all of these jobs alone, from descriptions of landscapes and buildings to decisions about clothes to the way characters reveal themselves through expression and gesture. Attention to the body in fiction is a type of action in which writers act out the expressions of their characters in their minds, creating a set of details often more powerful than dialogue itself, which brings a deepened realism to a novel or short story and a greater sense of complexity to the world that is imagined on the page. 

 

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—Todd James Pierce is the author or co-author of eight books, including Three Years in Wonderland and Newsworld, winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. He is the co-director of the creative writing program at Cal Poly University in San Luis Obispo, California. toddjamespierce.com

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