Cave men used body language to communicate and so do we. Our spoken language is probably much more understandable than their grunts, but we don’t use just words to get our message across either. Being verbal isn’t enough.
As writers we rely on dialogue to a large degree to show interaction between our characters and move our story forward. But words alone often don’t present the whole picture of what’s actually happening. And at times words can be inaccurate or misleading.
Body language/non verbal communication helps to give our dialogue meaning. Without the character’s body language, the conversation might be flat or hard to interpret. You can say one thing but mean another. In the real world the meaning might be easy to figure out, but not so easy on the written page.
The true meaning of a conversation may be deduced through the tone of voice, inflection, facial expression, eye contact, hand gestures, choice of words, changes in breathing and body movements etc. So it’s important to add some of these non verbal clues to our dialogue. Obviously it’s crucial to show the characters actions along with their words. Sprinkle them throughout a discussion.
I don’t know about you, but I hate to read lots of ‘talking heads’ dialogue without picturing how the characters are responding to the words and to each other. It’s like a phone call without tone of voice or inflexion. The dialogue might be strong and impart emotion (and it should be), but the impact would be greater with some body language to reinforce it. These non verbal clues bolster our dialogue and differentiate one character from another. It’s showing, not telling and we all know how important that is!
There are two important parts of any message that we have to consider—how it’s sent and how it’s received. Since in a written story the reader can’t see how the character is conveying her message, the writer has to add enough information to get her idea across clearly. Sometimes our words are neutral. It’s our tone of voice and inflection that give it meaning.
As writers, we convey our characters’ emotions and lots of them—aggression, boredom, attention, deception, defensiveness, dominance, judgment, power, relaxation, romantic feelings, submissiveness etc. If we do our job well, we paint a vivid picture with their body language which will bring our story alive for our readers. The picture will be clear in our mind since we’re writing, but make sure it’s equally as clear for the reader.
Verbal language is often fairly easy to control, but not so body language. It’s hard to disguise stress, and strong emotions such as anger and fear. And if you know what a character’s normal body language is, then you can tell if it’s changed because of a difficult or stressful situation. It can be really hard to hide your true feelings.
If you’re interested in learning more about Non Verbal Communication, take one of Mary Buckham’s online courses. She’s an expert.