Have you ever wondered what the difference was between mediocre writing and books that stood out and begged to be read? I have, and through several workshops, I’ve learned that one of the most notable differences is the way the writing shows how characters communicate.
If you have a character in a scene, you need to show them communicating, even if they don’t have one line of dialogue. Everyone communicates nonverbally all the time. Sit in your doctor’s or dentist’s waiting room, and watch the other people. Their faces convey unspoken messages. Their posture conveys unspoken messages. Their lips, mouth, eyes, glances, sighs, spatial relationships, movements and finger twitches convey unspoken messages.
Sometimes writers use body language as a beat. They need a short sentence, a pause, a few hits of cadence to precede or follow a line of dialogue, internalization, or action. Unfortunately, writers often repeat the same body language beats in multiple chapters. On the page, they’re predictable, they’re boring, and they slow pacing.
We’ve all read books in which characters display too many behavioral tags such as these: running hands through hair, arching an eyebrow, chewing lip, rolling lips in, licking lips, rubbing jaw, crossing arms across chest, narrowing gaze, clearing throat, shrugging, both shoulders, one shoulder, and half-shrugs, drumming fingers, steepling fingers, fisting hands, etc.
I’m just as guilty, but now that I’m aware of what I’m doing, I give the pages a second look. Even if you change the wording, such as running a hand through hair, raking his hands through his hair, running fingers through his hair, it’s all the same pattern. It’s not interesting. If those three examples were each used once in 100 pages, it could work. Used three times in 50 pages? Three times in 30 pages? Too much.
Writers do not have to interpret most of the non-verbals for the reader. They don’t have to say why the character is blinking more rapidly – or write that character X probably shifted in his chair because the topic made him uncomfortable. The reader will pick it up consciously, or subconsciously.
Go back to that waiting room full of people. Watch their nonverbal responses. Write your own list. How many of them are different from those listed above? Are they: massaging their mustaches for ten minutes? Scrunching their noses making ugly-kid-faces? Scratching the inside of their ears with the eraser end of a pencil? Chewing their hair? Picking dog or cat fur from their clothing?
REMEMBER: Readers get bored with the same nonverbal tags. Your characters are not boring. Don’t have them use repetitive body language.
Laura Elvebak Laura Elvebak is the author of Less Dead (2008) and Lost Witness (2009), (L&L Dreamspell), both awarded five star reviews on Amazon, which features Niki Alexander, an ex-cop turned teen counselor. Her short stories are “Searching for Rachel” featured in A Death in Texas, and “Dying For Chocolate” in the award winning A Box of Texas Chocolates. .