Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Nonverbal communication

We are always communicating, as are the people we write about. Much of the information we receive comes from nonverbal communication, so writers should use it to help readers identify with and understand who their characters/subjects are.

Nonverbal communication is the ability to send and receive messages without using words. This can include facial expressions, body language, artifacts and paralanguage, which includes the WAY we say something. Paying attention to nonverbal communication can give insight to your readers, and strengthen your writing.

Every gesture, facial expression, detail of clothing and jewelry can bring a character or subject to life. These details can help define our characters or subjects, explain what makes them tick and let us know what’s important to them.

What artifacts does your character or subject have around him or her? What’s on the kitchen counter? Is mail stacked up? Are the canned goods in the pantry alphabetized? What about the car? Is it messy, or does it look like it just rolled off the dealer’s lot? Does she fumble in her purse for her keys? Are clothes neatly pressed, or rumpled? Does he look like John Hamm from Mad Men, or Peter Falk as Columbo?

Writers can set a scene with nonverbal cues. Does the main character silently roll up to the mansion in a silver Mercedes? Or does the missing muffler announce his presence half a mile away? Does the three-carat diamond reflect the light across the room, or does the plain gold band need a good polishing?

How do your characters talk? Does someone shriek, or are words spoken softly and gently? Imagine a doctor using these tones. What would each of these types of paralanguage imply? Did someone whisper your name? Speak with an accent or a lisp? Each of these attributes gives us information.

Some nonverbal cues match the messages they accompany. Smiling while talking about a spouse, or frowning while trying to figure out computer problems are examples of nonverbal and verbal messages matching each other. Other nonverbal cues don’t match the verbal message. When they don’t, we receive mixed messages, and we are more likely to believe the nonverbal cue.

“I’m fine,” she said, between sobs.

Do you really think she’s fine because she says she is fine? Or do you believe the nonverbal cue – sobbing. Blushing would be another example of a nonverbal cue that gives true insight into emotions.

So, the next time you write about someone, think about nonverbal communication to help bring him or her to life.

Talk to you soon,



  1. Mary, thanks for this valuable post.

  2. I'm glad you found it valuable!

  3. So true, Mary.

    Nonverbal communications and body language are fascinating.

    Decades ago I was busy cooking supper and thinking about my bad day at work when my son (around 9 or 10 at the time) asked me a question.

    After I answered him he asked, "Are you mad at me, Mom?"

    "Of course not," I said, "Why would you think that?"

    He answeed, "Your eyes look mad."

    He had a point. Even though I wasn't mad at him, my eyes gave away my mood; I was thinking about my bad day at work.

  4. That is such a great example. And a great line "Your eyes look mad." I think I'll write about facial expressions soon. There is some surprising research!

  5. Great post, Mary, and I obviously agree with's oh so true!

  6. Thanks, Becky, it was good to talk to you Saturday! And I owe you an email that I will get out later this week!