What Are They Not Saying, Part 1

Communication 1

Someone once said, without characters we really don’t have story.

As writers, we strive to craft complex and compelling characters who will engage the reader for the journey of the story. We do this through action and external and internal dialogue. We also use their relationships with other characters, their story goals, and how they interact with the world.

There’s another aspect we dare not ignore—how do our characters communicate non-verbally.

Think of a recent conversation you’ve had with someone. Did you consciously pay attention to how they said what they said?

Did the waitperson at the restaurant really seem to want your experience to be enjoyable? How did you know? Was it her smile? Did she make eye contact? Was she enthusiastic or did she just seem to be going through the motions?

Think back to your childhood. How did you know mom or dad were angry without them saying a word? I use this as an interactive exercise when I teach dialogue. Folded arms. Tapping toes. Drumming fingers. The glare over the top of the glasses. What we all know as The Look. The same look we use with our kids today. Or with our spouses. Although this is at your own peril.

Depending on the study, anywhere from 60 to 95 percent of our communication is non-verbal.

Why is this important to our writing?

How a character speaks can add depth and layers in emotional situations and highly-charged scenes. Combining words and actions and internal dialogue take the reader into a deeper and more intimate knowing of the character.

How a character speaks tells us so much more than just the words she uses. Nonverbals give away a character’s underlying thoughts. How they speak can be used to reinforce or contradict verbal communication. This is especially helpful when we’re trying to convey strong emotion or establish an unreliable character.

When done well, nonverbal communication can be used as a secret language or code. Have you ever arranged with your spouse that a certain action is the sign that’s it time to leave a gathering? I would advise not using your finger up your nose or strangling yourself.

Next week we’ll look at some types of nonverbal communication and how can we convey this to our readers.


  1. What Are They Not Saying, Part 2 - Official Website of Author Henry McLaughlin - July 18, 2018

    […] For the first installment in this series, click here. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *