Actions speak louder than words

Non-verbal communication is usually understood to mean the process of creating or representing meaning by sending and receiving wordless, usually visual messages. These can include facial expressions, gestures, body language and eye contact. But how, I hear you ask, can this possibly help the writer? We need to examine the concept in a little more detail.

Previous posts have discussed the art of showing, not telling. Non-verbal communication falls firmly into the ‘showing’ category. Our characters don’t have to say anything to convey how they are feeling. The postures they adopt, their facial expressions and unconscious actions or tics will all reflect their moods and tell the reader more about the characters’ thoughts and feelings than long paragraphs of description, speech tags and adverbs.

We can convey anger by having a character crash the crockery onto the worktop; misunderstanding by a blank expression; childish insolence by a thrust-out bottom lip. A character’s posture can tell the reader volumes – the slumped shoulders of the defeated; the pacing of the impatient; the shivering of the frightened. A stern look can denote a serious mood; a pale skin can reflect shock and a person rubbing their eyes can show tiredness.

These feelings can all be illustrated by using non-verbal communication in our writing. Try and find ways of conveying the following moods without using the word itself:

  • Impatience / Annoyance / Irritation
  • Anger
  • Sadness / Grief / Misery
  • Guilt / Remorse
  • Excitement / Pleasure
  • Anticipation
  • Fear / Terror / Dread / Horror / Shock
  • Happiness / Delight
  • Pain
  • Indifference / Apathy
  • Contentment
  • Lateness
  • Insolence / Rudeness
  • Embarrassment

P.S.        We shouldn’t forget that the way a character speaks should also contain clear indicators as to their feelings and attitudes. The stress they place on certain words, the actual words chosen and way in which they are delivered and at what volume will all help to convey their thoughts, moods and intentions to the reader.

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6 thoughts on “Actions speak louder than words

  1. In trying to show, not tell, my characters’ moods, I have to take care not to use the same “show” expression over and over, e.g., ‘he shrugged’ for apathy, or the ever-popular ‘he sighed’. It is sometimes difficult to be creative. Thanks for the list of moods–is a good exercise.

  2. I know what you mean; it’s so difficult to ring the changes. I remember being taught not to use mood signifiers in speech tags, such as he smiled, or she frowned, as they can’t be vocalised. I tend to stick with he said/she said, which are largely ignored by readers, and convey feelings elsewhere, as in, ‘Not in my house, you don’t,’ she said through pursed lips. Thanks for the comment 🙂

  3. Your posts are such good refreshers for me! I’m generating a list of things I need to check in my current revision, and many of these points will be added. Now I need to be organized and make sure I KEEP that list for future reference! 🙂

    • I alwsys find reading other people’s work helps. Well-written fiction is full of good examples. Of course that means we have to find time to read…… Thanks for dropping by. 🙂

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