The last time I edited some of my work, I was dismayed to discover how many times my characters smiled, sighed, or scowled and how infrequently they used any other gestures. What, I thought, if my characters didn’t just smile, sigh, and scowl? What if they clapped hands and skipped around the room beaming? Or thumped down with a huge outrush of air, to settle in for the long tedious wait? Or leaned threateningly in towards the bully, elbows out, legs stiffened, features frozen? What if my characters could gain a much more nuanced, much more expressive range of gestures and emotions?
As I contemplated fancying up my emotional descriptions, I remembered Keith Cronin’s sage advice about pretentious words and had a reality check. Was I just getting carried away with word-love again?
Then I adopted a former stray dog, and my eyes were opened. She entered the house fully formed, with her own expectations, habits, and history. All I had to go on to figure out what she wanted or needed were her facial expressions, subvocalizations, and posture. I learned the subtle nuances of one dog ear raised, a short whine, a long whine, a big sigh. Figuring out what she was trying to ‘tell’ me had a big payoff (no messes, less chewing of items, a happy dog). This close observation became a habit, and I started watching people in everyday conversations.
Just how much of what is ‘said’ does not occur through words is astonishing. Researchers have estimated that more than half of communication (estimates range from 65% to 90% by various investigators) is non-verbal. The same words will mean different things depending on tone of voice, accompanying facial expression, posture and position of the speaker, even clothing and appearance. First impressions happen within 1/10th of a second. Or less. And they are mostly based on non-verbal communication.
There has been a lot written on non-verbal communication–even Charles Darwin wrote a book about it. (Links to a few more recent studies can be found at the end of this blog.) A lot of current research appears in psychology studies, an equally large amount appears in guides to business success, since non-verbal communication is a crucial part of making presentations and deals. I found surprisingly little written on the glorious possibilities it offers for writers of fiction. A simple summary of the characteristics of non-verbal communication reads like a checklist of strategies for improving flat scenes:
- Can use all of the senses, not just hearing.
- Increases in importance in situations where meaning is uncertain or untrusted or when actions conflict with verbal messages.
- Increases in importance and in nuance in emotional situations.