Creative Writing · Novels · Screenwriting

Writing Non-verbal Responses

Since my last post was about a resource for writing believable emotion, I thought I’d keep this next article on a similar topic. One of the essential techniques for showing instead of telling is being able to write non-verbal cues. Real people don’t communicate only through dialog. We communicate non-verbally through actions and facial expressions, and to write convincing scenes writers have to be able to capture that in their characters.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m writing I picture the scenes in my head like I’m watching a movie. One of my goals when writing is to give readers good enough descriptions to paint a believable picture in their own minds.

Learning From Film and TV

One of the ways novelists can learn to create visual elements using words is by studying actors. An accomplished actor will be able to make their characters seem well-rounded by including non-verbal elements in their performances. It can be a good creative writing exercise to find a scene where you notice the actor’s non-verbal performance, and then try to write that scene. Will a reader be able to picture your written character’s emotions the way you can see it on screen?

My favorite actor right now is Richard Armitage, partly because of how good he is at communicating non-verbally in his performances. There are some wonderful scenes in BBC’s Robin Hood where Armitage’s Guy of Gisborn is being harangued by the sheriff. Guy can’t talk back without risking his position, but the way his eyebrows move tell viewers exactly how much he despises the sheriff.

Using It In A Scene

Here’s an edited version of an argument I recently wrote in The Heather and the Falcon.

Bryant moved closer and put his hands on my shoulders. “I’m not turning against you. This just means we won’t make the betrothal public until we receive Cormac’s reply. You are the one who suggested that in the first place.”

I shrugged his hands off. “And you are the one who said we would be married no matter what Cormac’s reply.”

“Artt thinks –”

I spun away. “Artt thinks. Who cares what Artt thinks.” I turned again, and waved a hand at Artt. “He has even less to offer than I have – no family, no land, no wealth, no power. Why can he rule Errettham with you and I can’t?”

Stepping around Bryant, I faced Artt. “You would not have let me return home for my father’s funeral because you feared Cormac would break his word. Now you want Bryant to do the same thing. What does that say about your honor?”

Artt’s face turned purple. “If you were a man, I would challenge you for saying that.”

“If I were a man, I’d have killed you for what you said in the library.”

I don’t have to write Aelis (the narrator) thinking “I was angry with Artt” for readers to figure that out. They can probably also guess that she’s irritated with Bryant, and that he’s trying to act as a peacemaker. Word choice in dialog and descriptions of non-verbal cues gives readers all they need to determine the characters’ states of mind.

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