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One Solution To Writing Better Dialogue Is To Focus On What's Not Said

May 23, 2008
Depending on which expert you believe, up to 95% of communication is non-verbal.

So if just five per cent represents the words, why do so many writers rely on this single aspect to convey what their characters are 'saying?'

This article is not about the misuse of said-bookisms - the use of alternatives to 'said' used by rookie writers. I'll leave advice on how to demonstrate tone of voice for another time.

This is all about the major part of communication - body language. Up to 60% of what you communicate is conveyed this way - so why don't we use it as writers?

In my 'other life' I've recruited for twenty years and I use every trick in the book. I use Neuro Linguistic Programming like the best of them and yes, I spend a lot of time analysing body language.

In the hands of a willing amateur, a body language book is a dangerous tool - especially when recruitment decisions could be made on a single interpretation. But used prudently, it can help you understand someone's mood or even their true intentions.

If you've ever watched television without the sound, you'd be amazed how easily you can pick up on people's moods. It's a subconscious thing - and that fact helps the writer. You just need to drop a few references to body language into your dialogue and the reader should get the message.

I say 'should' as some body language is subtle and although we know instinctively what an action means, our conscious brain dominates and ignores the sign.

The problem for writers is that when they proofread their manuscript, they know what every character is thinking. Without making a conscious effort, they read each line with the appropriate emotion and mood - even if the dialogue doesn't make it obvious how the character is feeling.

It's particularly true in audio books. I listen to them when I'm travelling and you can hear the emotion in the narrator's voice, yet there are no words written (or spoken) that indicate it was the appropriate tone of voice.

The writer knew, and that's why they narrated that way. But if I were reading in print, I wouldn't have a clue.

So what does it all mean? It means stick to the obvious body language signs if possible - without stereotyping.

Here are some prime examples:

If someone's happy, they tend to smile. Obvious really. They tend to show open palms and will sit in an open manner - nothing is crossed. They will unbutton their coat for example.

If someone is confident, they tend to lean forward (leaning towards someone also suggests you like them). If moving, they will walk briskly and lengthen their stride.

If someone is nervous, they will fidget. They will clear their throat and play with anything in front of them. If standing, hands on hips denote that someone is wary of the people next to them. Just one hand on hip means that it's only the person on that side they have an issue with.

If someone is unsure, they tend to pull on an ear-lobe.

If someone is lying, they often put their hand in front of their mouth - subconsciously hiding their lie. They will also avoid eye contact.

If someone is being defensive, they will lean away. They will cross arms and legs.

If someone is aggressive, they will clench their fist. They will often grit their teeth. They will typically point with their finger - particularly with jabbing motions. They may chop one hand into the palm of another. If sitting, they often tap a foot or bounce one of their legs (this could also mean they are bored or just irritated).

This isn't meant to be a definitive list but it's a useful starting point. I'd recommend every author buys a copy of a body language book and spends some time in a public place, observing behaviour. Note facial expressions, body positioning and what people do with their hands. Consider how they handle a pen or a spoon. What does it all tell you about their mood?

So if you want to write better dialogue, you need to consider all the non-verbal signals that we take for granted every time we have a conversation. Now go ahead and use it. I hereby give you permission to use the 95% you've probably dismissed until now.
About the Author
Mark Walton is the author of 24 Easy Ways to Make Your Dialogue Speak Volumes, a self-help guide for writers. If you want to improve your chances of getting a story published then visit http://www.betternovelwriting.com/Dialogue.htm and see how quickly and easily your writing can advance.
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