Nonverbal Communication and Writing

08 Nov

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?


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19 responses to “Nonverbal Communication and Writing

  1. Clarissa Southwick

    November 8, 2012 at 7:00 AM

    What a great topic, Mary. I try to do this in my writing, but it does take a lot of observation to get it right 🙂

    • maryvine

      November 8, 2012 at 2:10 PM

      I know, Clarissa. Getting it right on the page is hard work, but very rewarding when we can get it right.

  2. Judith Keim

    November 8, 2012 at 7:26 AM

    Love this! You did such a nice job of talking about this at our meeting. I can never get enough reminders! Thanks!

    • maryvine

      November 8, 2012 at 2:12 PM

      Thanks so much for the kinds words, Judith!

  3. Meredith Allen Conner

    November 8, 2012 at 7:28 AM

    I love non-verbal communication. And like Clarissa, I try to add as much as I can and do it justice!

    • maryvine

      November 8, 2012 at 2:14 PM

      I love it,too. Thanks for commenting, Meredith.

  4. Peggy Staggs

    November 8, 2012 at 8:10 AM

    Non-verbal communication is so important in writing and in real life.

    • maryvine

      November 8, 2012 at 2:16 PM

      Peggy-on first look you’d think it’s verbal communication that makes the point, but it’s the nonverbal. Best to put both in our stories, though.

  5. Janis McCurry

    November 8, 2012 at 8:36 AM

    My boss always talked about “my look” when I was doubting something he said or asked about. Dipped chin, eyes looking over the glasses. I’ve honed it to perfection. It perfectly says, “Are you serious???”

    • maryvine

      November 8, 2012 at 2:27 PM

      Sounds like you get along well with your boss, Janis. Thanks for commenting.

  6. Paty Jager

    November 8, 2012 at 5:08 PM

    Great post, Mary. I know nonverbal communication is important in showing the story but now I need to go through and see if i did enough of it. Thanks!

  7. maryvine

    November 8, 2012 at 6:04 PM

    I know, Paty. I’m doing some editing and making sure I’m not telling too much. Thanks for commenting Paty!

  8. Chad Smith

    November 8, 2012 at 6:57 PM

    Young Woman At A Window

    She sits with
    tears on
    her cheek
    her cheek on
    her hand
    the child
    in her lap
    his nose
    to the glass

    Excellent post again. Reminded me of this poem we studied in our modern poetry class by William Carlos Williams.

    – chadwick

    • maryvine

      November 8, 2012 at 7:29 PM

      Yes, good connection. Sounds like a great class. Thanks for commenting, Chadwick 🙂

  9. marsharwest

    November 9, 2012 at 9:30 AM

    Good reminders, Mary. I’ll have to check out the books you recommend. What’s helped me the most is using Margie Lawson’s packets and attending one of her Emersion Classes. No wonder I have gotten published yet. My first three books were sadly lacking in viscereal feelings. The fourth book has been “Margieized” and is out with publishers. Fingers crossed. Thanks for the resources, Mary, and the reminder about how important emotions are to our books. Almost finished with first rough draft of book 6. Even at this stage, some of Margie’s Rhetorical Devices have slipped in on their own. Very exciting when that begins to happen.

    • maryvine

      November 9, 2012 at 7:08 PM

      Good to hear it’s starting to come naturally! Sounds to me like you are so close to a sell. Always love reading your comments, Marsha.

  10. Lynn Mapp

    November 9, 2012 at 9:39 PM

    Mary, you did an excellent presentation at the chapter meeting. This is so interesting.

  11. maryvine

    November 10, 2012 at 7:38 AM

    Thanks for the compliment, Lynn. It is interesting for us writers as another facet of how to do what we love.

  12. Sinay

    March 9, 2013 at 9:42 AM

    Hi Mary,

    I stumbled into your post after doing some research for my site on how writers ‘show’ body language in their writing.
    I really liked your post but there’s one misconception that I would like to correct:
    The 7% 38% 55% rule of communication is actually a myth. There are no solid scientific evidence that support that claim and it was debunked many times. I invite you and anyone who’s interested to read this post for more details:

    Other than that, thank you for this share!


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