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Monday, March 18, 2013

5 Types of Nonverbal Communication for Characters' Conversations

Lately I've been talking a little about dialogue, but you know what? Almost ALL of communication is nonverbal. Another writer, John Harper wrote this article on nonverbal communication in response to my blog post. If you haven't invested much time into thinking about body language in your writing, hopefully you will after you read this:

93% of all communication is not spoken. It is in the hand gestures, the facial expressions, and the body position where most communication happens.

Just think about this for a moment. 93%. If you spoke seven sentences you would have communicated 93 times through other forms. That is a lot. That is almost all of it. In fact, in some circumstances in fiction, dialogue may not be needed at all to convey character emotion and thoughts. More than likely, however, the verbal communication will instead be backed up by a host of nonverbal communication.

So what does that mean for us writers? Well if you aren't writing about the nonverbal communication then you are ignoring 93% of the information available, and giving the reader only 7% of what is 'happening' in the conversation. Obviously you are not going to write every single piece of nonverbal communication that occurs in a conversation, but ignoring it completely will be at your peril. You should be providing enough detail to allow the reader to gauge the emotion of the conversationalists.

Consider a party: lots of people, lots of conversation, but only 7% of information is being conveyed through spoken words - the content of the conversation. How it was delivered, how the person feels about what they are saying, this is all communication that people can see and pick up on, but it is all nonverbal. It provides subtext by reinforcing what the person is saying or acting as juxtaposition, showing they don't believe what they are saying. It also conveys the relationship between the conversationalists (e.g. alpha male, domineering boss, secret lover, etc).

Nonverbal communication is often subconscious. We do it without thinking. It just happens, an autonomous response to stimuli. Often we try to control our nonverbal communication, e.g. by hiding our surprise or anger. But hiding a response is a conscious decision. Reacting to a stimulus is subconscious, so even if you try to cover up your reaction you will more than likely have a brief flash of true communication before you smother it with something else. Body language is all the movements we make as well as involuntary reactions that show our reactions when we communicate. It is a large part of nonverbal communication and can be separated into the following groups:

1) Communication by Touch

Touching can often occur during conversation. Touch may be friendly, coercive or dominating. It can communicate understanding, comfort, encouragement, flirtation, pleasure, threats, manipulations and assault.

Some people touch frequently, like kids and older people. Those that have been abused are very anti-touch and will likely have strong physical reactions to being touched.

What is your character's background? Why do they touch (or not)? Will the reader understand the touch or misconstrue it?

Remember that regardless of the touch the touchee normally has a reaction to the touch, such as making a face or jerking away or returning a smile or saying something.

Consider the length of time of the touch – did it linger or was it too short? This changes its meaning. Was the comfort of the toucher different to the touchee? How does that affect how the touchee receives the touch?

Does the touch get misinterpreted?

Does the toucher not touch when they normally would? How does the touchee react to that?

2) Communication by Body Movement

This includes facial expressions, as well as movements of the body, head, and legs. If someone tells you something shocking, and you stand still, trying to keep a blank expression, you are communicating through body movement.

What parts of your body do you communicate with?

Your mouth is very expressive. Lips can be parted, perhaps showing the tongue, twisted, pursed, narrowed or you could wet them. Your jaw can hang loose or firm or incredibly tight. Tongue movement is a big one. Does it poke out, move around in your mouth? Smiles come in all shapes and sizes too: wide with joy, forced, with teeth, without teeth, big 'o' smiles or uncomfortable half smiles. All of these all show something about how the person is feeling.

What about arms? Is there anything arms can't do? You can hug yourself tight if you are feeling unsure, nervous. You can touch your face, neck and lips if you feeling anxious or scared. You can rub your arms to indicate that you are cold, rub your hands together, you can make gestures, you can tense them, leave them slack and a hundred other things to convey an emotion or a line of thought. Arms play a big part in body positioning (see below).

The eyes are a lynchpin of writing but they can't actually do a heck of a lot. The pupils can widen, the eyelids can open. The skin around the eyes can tighten. You can blink faster if you're lying or not blink if you are in a state of shock. Your gaze/focus can move around. All of these are important but shouldn't necessarily be your 'go to body movement'.

3) Communication by Body Positioning

This covers the angles and spatial location of your body in respect to who you are communicating with and others.

Have you ever been caught in a conversation at work that you weren't really interested in? How did you stand? Did you stand face on to your colleague, or did you angle away, aim your feet and chest toward the door, look away and glance at others? Your subconscious is giving out strong signals that you want to get out RIGHT NOW.

Or maybe someone you don't know is talking to you, and they are in your personal space. How does that make you feel? Did you step back, angle away from them, keep looking at the nearest exit? Did you touch your face, neck, arms more than normal?

There are strong psychological links with your spatial environment. When people are in your space it can cause anxiety and stress, even anger. Is the person talking to you unaware of their spatial environment or are they purposefully getting in your space to intimidate or dominate? Perhaps they are suggesting intimacy?

4) Tells

Whenever I think of tells, I think of James Bond in Casino Royale when he is reading the tell of the BAD GUY to determine if he is bluffing. The BAD GUY then subsequently uses the tell falsely to trick James Bond.

Tells are things we do repeatedly, a crutch or a security blanket, such as touching ourselves (twisting hair, touching mouth, stroking neck, rubbing arms) or a movement or even a word. It is something that we do by rote because it makes us feel better (on a subconscious level) or has just become habit.

5) Gestures

This is a big one. The movement of the hands and arms while you talk. What do you do when you're explaining the size of the fish you just caught? You spread your arms. You add another layer to the communication with gestures.

Gestures are comprised of three components: Preparation (moving the arms from an at-rest position,) Stroke (the critical component, where the communication occurs) and Retraction (returning the arms to an at-rest position).

If a person is being honest then their gestures will be slightly ahead of their speech, i.e 'Preparation' begins before they start talking'. If they are being dishonest, the gesture is likely to be added consciously to improve the illusion of the lie. In that case the gesture is delayed slightly, i.e running behind the speech.

Some gestures are more universal, such as a thumbs up to indicate agreement, shrugging to indicate indifference or pointing a finger to indicate blame.

Other gestures help illustrate a point, such as the before mentioned spreading of the arms to show the size of the fish you caught. Other examples include tapping a finger on a table to reinforce your point or ticking points off on a finger.

Some gestures are reactions to events and can be subconscious, such as smoothing your hair, gripping hands together, putting a tight fist to your mouth or clasping your arms around your body.

Obviously this is not an exhaustive list and only touches on what is out there. If you weren't already aware of these aspects of nonverbal communication then hopefully you are now, and you'll add it to your own writing toolbox. If you already know about this, maybe it's jogged the memory, reminded you that to create the illusion of reality in your writing you need to add detail to make communication seem real.

If you want to read more then there are books out there that deal with the psychology of writing. Margie Lawson at www.margielawson.com has online courses and examples on her website. Her entire focus is the psychology of writing and I strongly suggest you check her out. If you have any questions you can come check me out at my website www.andherethewheel.co.nz or email me at john_at_andherethewheel_dot_com.

Thanks for reading,



  1. Wow. This was mind blowing, informative, very helpful, and I think all my manuscripts need a serious re-write! Thank you.

    I took a class on how to approach others and I never once thought about using what I know in books. The way someone is standing, where their feet are pointed, which direction they are looking while having a conversation, how far they stand from the person they are talking to.

    This post has inspired some serious thought and ideas for my books. And how I can make them better! Thank you, thank you!

  2. I love this and bookmarked it to come back to for another read through. Thanks, John.

  3. I've thought about this before in passing, but looking at this in depth, I think I could do even better with my characters. Thank you for the wonderful post!

  4. I've bookmarked it too.

  5. Excellent post! Thanks so much for sharing. I'm an actress as well as a writer, so I naturally think about non-verbal communication a lot when I write, but you've given me additional ideas, so thank you very much!

  6. *pounds fist on the table
    Now THAT'S what I'm talking about! or writing about anyway...
    *gets a faraway look in her eyes, contemplating her life's work on paper

    Thank you for this, I enjoyed it greatly *broad grin
    Looking forward to more just like it!

  7. Thanks for the comments everyone. I'm glad you all enjoyed the post. I hope it helps your writing jump up another notch.

    Oh, and thanks Kami for having me over as a guest!


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