My last post discussed nonverbal communication (gestures, expressions, posture) as a means of making scenes stronger, less repetitive, and more immediate. This blog will explore how non-verbal communication provides a means of incorporating backstory seamlessly and integrally into a work of fiction.
Backstory–where the characters have come from, what they have experienced, how they have successfully or unsuccessfully reacted to their past context–is an essential, critical, and desperately difficult element of successful storytelling. Done poorly—in ‘data dumps’, tell-all prologues, or extensive and jarring flashbacks–it pulls the reader backwards, out of the motion of the story and into a closed off past. Done well—integrated into the story–it pulls the past forward, providing clues to the way a character’s past experiences and disappointments influence present choices, actions, and mistakes.
How to integrate backstory into the story present is neither obvious nor easy. There are many writerly devices to do so—through direct communication (characters discussing the past, a character’s internal self-examination, or a narrator’s overview); through discovered records (letters, diaries, photographs), through story consequences from past actions (scars, physical injuries, institutionalization). Many of these devices require a good deal of finesse to make them a believable part of the story rather than a ‘plant.’ Would those characters really have had that conversation about the past? How convenient that the letter explaining everything was found within two pages of the conclusion. Readers are smart, and any time these writerly devices start to feel like authorial manipulation—a lazy means of communicating story information–rather than an integral part of the story, the reader loses a little faith.
Nonverbal communication–which is based on learned, repeated, or automatic responses developed from past experiences–provides a powerful story tool for connecting the present to the past in a manner that can minimize this sense of manipulation. Nonverbal communication offers immediate, visceral information to the reader; often information that the character would not willingly tell; and always information that brings the past into the present. This makes it possible for a writer to incorporate backstory as a part of the present story action, without resorting to exposition, explanation, or ‘telling.’
When a nonverbal reaction is normal, when it matches expectations, it is close to invisible. When it is unexpected or inappropriate it is glaringly visible and creates powerful story questions. Readers (and other characters in the story) instinctively understand that anomalous reactions require examination and explanation. Imagine a character whose reaction to a friend’s tear-filled apology is narrowed eyes and crossed arms. Why did she do that? The reader will typically assume that the answer lies in the character’s past–that at some point her unconventional reaction was a successful response, not an awkward one.
Emojis (which are literally a graphic alphabet of non-verbal communication) demonstrate the visceral power of inappropriate nonverbal response. Have you ever left the ‘wrong’ emoji in reaction to a text or a post? A thumbs up on a friend’s announcement of a deceased pet? A crying emoji when everyone else’s emoji is angry? Have you ever felt like you need to explain that discrepancy? Or delete it? Or edit it? That is the power of the unexpected response.