Some of the information in this blog comes from Body Language 101 by David Lambert and The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. I recommend these books and they can come straight to your e-book reader at a reasonable price.
Body language/Nonverbal communication is the means by which humans convey information through conscious or unconscious gestures, bodily movements or facial expressions.
I didn’t know much about nonverbal communication until I studied it in college and the reason it became important to me is because I work with students on the autism spectrum. We become adept at reading others without a word being said, yet it can be hard for a person on the spectrum to understand nonverbal communication. This is important as communication is 7% verbal and 65 to 93% nonverbal. Researchers claim that the body’s unspoken signals carry five times more weight than the spoken word… even when we try not to show our feelings. The nonverbal message is more accurate and is usually believed over the verbal message, but the nonverbal expression and the verbal message must be considered together.
Research has identified 9 smiles. There are at least six facial expressions found throughout the world, which suggests they are inborn rather than learned. Happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, anger and disgust.
Nonverbal communication can be broken down into three elements: physical signals (body language and actions), internal sensations (visceral reactions) and mental responses (thoughts).
There are subconscious ways that humans show nonverbal communication. It is the mental activity not directly perceived by the consciousness, from which memories, feelings, or thoughts can influence behavior without realization of it (from Encarta Dictionary).
Nonverbal writing is hard to master and some writers shy away from it choosing to rely more on dialogue and thoughts.
All successful novels have one thing in common: emotion. Without emotion, a character’s personal journey is pointless. Stakes cease to exist. Readers want an emotional experience. Emotions fuel our communication.
A high school senior brought me the first chapter of her manuscript. It read like a synopsis with lots of telling. Who didn’t do this in their early years of writing? But, readers don’t want to be told how a character feels; they want to experience the emotion for themselves. We need to make sure our characters express their emotions.
Ninety-nine times out of one-hundred you need to show not tell. It adds extra words to the manuscript, too. And of course, nonverbal emotion can’t be told. It has to be shown. Telling puts distance between the character and the reader. They need to feel the emotion. That is by showing the physical and internal response. Emotion is strongest when both verbal and nonverbal communication are used in tandem.
Coming up with something new is hard. A grin for happiness or knocking knees for fear, but they lack depth because they don’t allow for a range of emotions. A single tear says sad, but how sad is she? Will she be crying five minutes from now? Your reader needs to know how upset she really is.
When writing a certain emotion, think about your body and what happens to it when you’re feeling that way. There are plenty of internal and external changes that, when referenced, will show the reader what your character is feeling.
Watch people at the mall or characters in movies. The face is the easiest to notice but the rest of the body is just as telling. How about changes in the voice, speech, or overall bearing and posture?