Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 24, 2021

Bringing Your Stories to Life with Nonverbals

By Tiffany Yates Martin

Imagine, for each of the below statements, receiving each of the above reactions:

  • “Could you take the trash out?”
  • “I got you a puppy!”
  • “I have something to tell you.”
  • “I love you.”

Actions, so the cliché goes, speak louder than words. Most experts agree that nonverbals make up the bulk of communication, and yet so often authors write scenes that rely mostly on dialogue to convey the dynamics between characters.

Words are a writer’s stock in trade, and what people say matters--but how they react arguably matters even more, as the above exercise indicates. Nonverbals can radically change the effect, meaning, or impact of dialogue.

They’re also key to revealing character--both POV characters as well as every other character in the story. Beyond the words they say and think, readers come to know characters through how they act, react, and interact.

Nonverbals are a powerful tool in your writer’s toolbox for bringing characters and scenes vividly to life on the page. But what are they, exactly, and how can you use them effectively?

What Are Nonverbals and What Do They Do?

Notice in the above photos how much is conveyed--far more than simply each person’s expression. In the top left, for instance, the forward lean might suggest interest or threat or slumping disrespect; the character’s shirtlessness could suggest casualness or provocation (either good or bad); the hand concealing one eye might indicate deception, shyness, skepticism. Every nonverbal this man is evincing could suggest any number of reactions, moods, traits--and even his tattoos convey something about his personality traits or preferences. That’s a lot of information from a single frozen pose, as in each of the other photos as well.

Nonverbals are basically just what they sound like--everything characters do and every behavior they elicit that isn’t the main action or dialogue: body language and posture, demeanor and affect, expressions, eye contact, gestures, level of attentiveness, etc.

They also include contextual details like how they dress, how they’re groomed, their comportment, choices and preferences, what they notice and don’t notice, and countless other under-the-radar elements of what makes up a three-dimensional human being.

Even nuances of dialogue like volume, tone, vocalized reactions, and silence are considered nonverbals.

Let’s look at an example to see what nonverbals can add to a scene--this is an excerpt from Kiley Reid’s wonderful book Such a Fun Age:

Seconds later, Zara’s phone exploded with sound. She flinched, said, “Whoops,” and turned the volume down. Synth filled the aisle, and as Whitney Houston began to sing, Zara began to twist her hips. Briar started to hop, holding her soft white elbows in her hands, and Emira leaned back on a freezer door, boxes of frozen breakfast sausages and waffles shining in waxy cardboard behind her.

Emira joined them as Zara sang the chorus, that she wanted to feel the heat with somebody. She spun Briar around and crisscrossed her chest as another body began to come down the aisle. Emira felt relieved to see a middle-aged woman with short gray hair in sporty leggings and a T-shirt reading St. Paul’s Pumpkinfest 5K. She looked like she had definitely danced with a child or two at some point in her life, so Emira kept going. The woman put a pint of ice cream into her basket and grinned at the dancing trio. Briar screamed, “You dance like Mama!”

There are five words of dialogue in these two paragraphs; much of the impression readers have of this scene lies in the nonverbals:

  • Zara’s flinch indicates she’s self-conscious about the loud ringtone in the tony grocery store the group is in.
  • The women’s respective reactions reveal character/mood/affect: Zara immediately launches into dancing; Briar’s cute body language and hops suggest she’s a child (and an unself-conscious one) even without our knowing already, and Emira’s hanging back at first tells us something about her too.
  • But Emira quickly joins right in with abandon--showing us another facet of her personality--till her relief at seeing the woman who comes into the aisle indicates that part of her is worried about propriety or is self-conscious or embarrassed, etc.
  • The woman’s appearance, casual attire, and affect (“like she had danced with a child or two at some point in her life”) suggest to Emira that she isn’t offended or annoyed by their antics, along with her carrying on with her shopping and grinning at their group, and thus Emira is comfortable continuing.
  • Briar’s scream indicates joy or perhaps that she’s a very unfettered, outgoing child.

That’s a lot of character info in two short grafs, none of which would have been conveyed by just a description of the action and dialogue:

Zara’s phone rang loudly. “Whoops.” She turned the volume down and started dancing with Briar, and after a moment Emira joined in. A woman coming into the aisle for ice cream smiled at them as Briar said, “You dance like Mama!”

Nonverbals help you paint your protagonists and their interactions with texture and depth. What is conveyed, for example, if your protagonist pulls the lapels of her jacket closed when her male boss walks in? If she sits up tall behind her desk, or leans back? If she grips the edges of her seat below his sightline? If she knocks over her coffee mug in a flurry of frenetic hand gestures? Each of these nonverbal cues tells readers something very different--and very distinct--about what’s going on inside her, and that’s what plunges us directly into your characters and scenes.

But they’re also invaluable for adding context and depth to other characters and their interactions with your protagonist. What do your POV characters observe in the people around them that informs the dynamics of the scene? How do other characters act and react, what is their affect or demeanor or mood?

Let’s say in our hypothetical scene above the boss knocks on her doorjamb with a single knuckle, grins, and leans one shoulder in the open doorway. Or he lets himself in the closed door without preamble, walking behind her desk and sitting on the edge so close his knees brush hers. Or fidgets in the chair across from her, or manspreads in it and leans forward leering, or stands looming over her, arms crossed.

In each instance, readers not only have a clear picture of the scene, but we’re forming impressions of the characters and what’s happening between them--just as your protagonist is. Which is an excellent way of plunging us directly into the scene and bringing it to life: We “see” it too, so we feel we’re part of it. It’s vivid, immediate, and real.

How to Use Nonverbals to Strengthen Your Story

The best way to learn how to effectively use nonverbals in your own scenes--as with so many other aspects of craft--is to learn to pay attention to them in others.

  • Try this exercise: Turn on a scene in a movie or TV show, but close your eyes and only listen. What do you know or infer about what’s going on from just the dialogue? Now back up that same scene and watch it--but this time with the sound off. How do the nonverbals change your impressions and the dynamics?
  • At night my husband watches TV in bed with headphones on (so I can read, of course), and I like to look up and see how much I can pick up on what a scene is about by watching something I’ve never seen before with no sound. Try this and you may be astonished how clearly the true dynamics of a scene come through without your hearing a single word of dialogue.
  • You can also do this with whatever you’re reading. Pick out especially vivid passages and dissect the prose as we did with Such a Fun Age Above to see what you glean about the characters and their dynamics from nonverbals, how much of the nuance of a scene is conveyed beneath the surface of simply what’s being said.
  • Become a student of human nature--others’ and your own. Tune into your own behavior, reactions, expressions in moments of emotion, for instance. (This is also a great cognitive behavioral psychology/Buddhist method of gaining some objectivity in these moments, as an added bonus.) When I’m nervous I talk much faster, for instance; I gesture a lot; I smile and laugh so much my face aches.
  • In conversations with others, notice how much of what you’re reacting to lies beyond the other person’s words: their facial expressions from which you infer their reactions, how they sit or stand, how close they are to you, nonverbal vocalizations of agreement or encouragement or skepticism or scorn.
  • And of course, we’re writers, so sit in a coffeeshop or bookstore (thank you, vaccines!) and watch other people interact. How much of their conversations can you glean simply from watching their body language, gestures, expressions?

Final Thoughts

Writers are sociologists of the human condition, avocational animal behaviorists whose subject is the endlessly faceted, fascinating Homo sapiens. Bring all that depth and color to your characters, scenes, and stories by digging into the rich vein of communication that lies under the surface of simply what is said.

Do you take care to add nonverbals to your stories as you write, or do you add them in later? How do you decide which ones to add and which ones to leave out? Share your process with us down in the comments!

* * * * * *

About Tiffany

Tiffany Yates Martin has spent nearly thirty years as an editor in the publishing industry, working with major publishers and New York TimesWashington PostWall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling and award-winning authors as well as indie and newer writers, and is the founder of FoxPrint Editorial and author of the bestsellerIntuitiveEditing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing. Check out her free “Self-editing Checklist” on the Resources page of her website, www.foxprinteditorial.com. Under the pen name Phoebe Fox, she's also the author of six novels, including the upcoming The Way We Weren't (Berkley).

Top Image from Jumpstory

To dig deeper into bringing characters to life, join me and Jane Friedman Wed., June 2 for our webinar Craft Believable and Compelling Characters, 1-2:15 EST. $25. (Recording available for attendees afterward.)

16 comments on “Bringing Your Stories to Life with Nonverbals”

  1. I swear, you and Margie Lawson just turn the keys that unlock my story problems. I've opened to a chapter I'm having trouble with and scribbled notes on the changes needed during my next writing time. Thank you!

  2. Super post, Tiffany! I'm guilty of using non-verbals but then feel the need to explain them in some small way in case the reader didn't get it. It's one more edit issue on my long list.

    1. Thanks, Barb! Nonverbals can be magic for bringing a scene and characters to life--but yes, sometimes we can hit them to hard by underscoring them. ("Hey, did you get that? Did you?") Readers are pretty savvy overall, in my experience, and I think those below-the-radar reactions and actions get noticed and subconsciously add to the puzzle they're putting together of who these characters are and what's going on in the scene. And that's so much of what makes readers feel they're a direct part of the story, I think. Thanks for the comment.

  3. This was great! I took quite a few communications classes in college and always enjoy the topic. I try to sprinkle them in as I draft, but I'm a fast drafter and don't like to take too much time to think about them then. Instead, I relish adding them later when the process is oh so much slower and contemplative. I can sit back and watch what transpires. As you noted in describing the one picture, there's a lot of power in characters misinterpreting non-verbals and that's great for writers. This made my morning as I prepare to perform a first edit on a novel today. Thanks again!

    1. I do too--I'm fascinated by human behavior and reaction. Love to dissect and analyze it. I try to confine myself to TV and movies as much as possible so my friends don't wind up feeling like pithed frogs when we're talking. 🙂 I love your way of working--vomit the scene/story out and then go back and layer in the texture and depth with things like nonverbals. That's the beauty of the editing and revision process--when you get to mine out all that gold. Thanks for the comment, Christina.

  4. While on the treadmill this afternoon (TMI, I know), I was watching an Andrew Lloyd Webber music celebration and Glenn Close sang With One Look. This was a connect-the-dots moment. I'd read your blog earlier, and the lyrics from a song about a silent-movie Norma Desmond's glory days made your points about non-verbal communication hit home. Thanks for your thought-provoking message!
    They don't want me any more,
    They all say I'm through
    Well it's time they knew
    With on look
    I can break your heart
    With one look
    I play every part
    I can make your sad heart sing
    With one look you'll know
    All you need to know.
    With one smile
    I'm the girl next door
    Or the love that you've hungered for
    When I speak it's with my soul
    I can play any role
    No words can tell
    The stories my eyes tell
    Watch me when I frown
    You can't write that down
    You know I'm right
    It's there in black and white
    When I look your way
    You'll hear what I say.
    Yes, with one look
    I put words to shame
    Just one look
    Sets the screen aflame
    Silent music starts to play
    One tear from my eye
    Makes the whole world cry.
    With one look
    They'll forgive the past
    They'll rejoice: I've returned at last
    To my people in the dark
    Still out there in the dark
    Silent music starts to play
    With one look you'll know
    All you need to know.
    With one look
    I'll ignite a blaze
    I'll return to my glory days
    They'll say Norma's back at last.
    This time I'm staying
    I'm staying for good
    I'll be back
    Where I was born to be
    With one look
    I'll be me

  5. Thanks, Tiffany, for such a thought-provoking post. I've shared it online. Happy Memorial Day!

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