Being a Better Writer: Gestures, Paralinguistics, and Dialogue

Welcome, readers, to the year 2020, and a new series of Being a Better Writer! We’re back at last, ready to tackle all new topics of writing every Monday. So kick back and get ready to talk writing!

If you’re new, well you’ve probably figured it out by now, but Being a Better Writer is a weekly series here on Unusual Things, several years running now, that’s all about writing in its various aspects. We’ve discussed everything from romance subplots to character motivations to common writing cliches.

So, what topic have I chosen to kick off the new year? One I’d imagine many people haven’t thought a lot on. I myself, actually, hadn’t consciously given it much thought until an incident about a month ago got me pondering on it. See, a little over a month ago now, as the holiday season was really winding up, I got talking with someone that had just finished one of my books, and they’d offered their thoughts and opinions. One thing that they pointed out was that the exposition offered by the characters felt, for lack of a better word, thicker than other books. It would cover plot, yes, and needed elements, but would do so in a way that was longer than other books by other authors.

But at the same time, while this threw them off, it wasn’t bad, and they couldn’t say why. For that matter, neither could I, and I puzzled over it for almost a week. Because they weren’t the first reader to note this. More than once it’s been pointed out to me that many readers feel my characters’ moments of dialogue and exposition are larger than other comparable books … but don’t feel drawn out. In other words, they make take twice as many words to say what another book would do in half the amount … but it doesn’t feel like it unless one sits back and looks at the whole.

This puzzled me, as it wasn’t the first time an observation in this vein has been made about my work. I say puzzling because for the majority of readers it wasn’t bad. No one felt that there were “extra” or even unnecessary words or phrases in there, despite the overall length being larger by comparison. Put before a critical editor, they’d hem and haw … but in the end conclude that they didn’t want to cut anything.

See? Puzzling. And so I spent a good week during the holidays pondering on this odd occurrence. What was I doing differently with my writing that made my dialogue and exposition longer … but not filler?

Then, I watched a Youtube video from content creator Tom Scott, and it clicked. I knew what it was that I was doing differently, and why people would note that the exposition was “thicker” but wouldn’t want to cut anything.

It had to do with my characters. Or rather, how I developed and made them come alive to the audience through use of paralinguistics.

So again, during this time looking at this exposition question, trying to catch what it was that I was doing differently, I was comparing my work to other’s that I was currently and recently read. And I was just coming up confused. Until one morning a new Tom Scott video showed up in my feed, and I watched it. Halfway through, I sat up straight and exclaimed “That’s it!” because it was. It was the clue I needed to discern what the difference was.

Gesture. Non-vocal cues and signals. They were everywhere in my dialogue. But they weren’t nearly so common in other things I was reading. That was the difference, why my dialogue and exposition felt “thicker.” And why those who read it couldn’t decide what to cut. Because they were looking for something “wrong” but their mind was reading those gestures with the dialogue as a facet of the characters, and so they didn’t want to cut that, because it made the scene and character come to life. Leaving them with a thought of “well, this is large” but perplexed at what to cut, because cutting those gestures and cues made the exposition and characters feel less alive.

Okay, so my personal discovery aside, let’s back up. What on Earth is paralinguistics, and what does it have to do with dialogue? And why are gestures in the title when we’re talking about dialogue. Gestures are a physical motion, right? That’s not dialogue. Dialogue is just words.

Well … no, actually. No it’s not. Gestures are “words” too, and a vital, living part of dialogue. Paralinguistics is the study of vocal and non-vocal signals in speech beyond basic words. Gestures, motions, signals … all are just as important in dialogue as words. They’re ingrained, in fact, so much so that those who are born without sight still use gestures. It’s an instinctive part of who we are.

You may have heard of this as “talking with one’s hands” or “Italian” (we laugh but it’s true) before, but the truth is we all do it. Pointing, as Tom Scott explains in his video, is one of the most important gestures there is. Nodding of a head. Tilting of a head. Waving of a hand.

What’s more, each of these motions has a context to it that enhances human speech and signifies human emotion. As he points out in his video, a thumbs-up in the context of being told of someone else’s success conveys a different expression and emotion than performing the same action standing on the side of the road.

In other words, gesture and other forms of paraliguistics are just as vital parts of speaking as the words themselves are. In fact, as pointed out in his video, often as a species we let the words “skim” past our focus, counting on our visual interpretation of non-spoken signals like gesture to interpret what someone is saying.

Seriously, even if you’re not a writer, this is a really cool video, and definitely worth your time watching. I’m dropping a link here because we’re at a good “break” point before we move on, but also because it’s really cool, and your understanding of today’s topic can only be enhanced by giving it a look.

 

Okay then, so this is neat and all, but how did this come back and solve my little mystery? And what does this have to do with your writing?

Simple: In comparing my writing with what I was reading/recently read, I noticed something that I’d always just sort of slid past before. The same way we slide past it every day in real life.

That’s right: My characters, during dialogue and exposition, were always much more non-verbal with their communication. It wasn’t just nods here and there, or maybe a pointing finger. No, it was a lot more than that. It was waving of hands, or a shrug, or an expression. Paralinguistics was everywhere in my character’s dialogue. And again, as I said above, this is why readers who were wondering why my dialogue was “thicker” couldn’t hit on anything “wrong.” Because these non-verbal cues added to the dialogue and brought the characters to life. So cutting one of them out felt “wrong” as it made the scene and characters seem less alive and real.

When I looked at what I was writing and working on compared to other words I was reading? There were far more gestures, motions, and other non-verbal cues on show in the dialogue in my work than a lot of the authors I was looking at.

Okay, so that’s neat. Mystery solved and all. But what does this mean for writing? Specifically, your writing? And should I be cutting back on these non-verbal elements of dialogue?

To the latter, no. And that’s where this gets tricky. I kid you not, I’ve had some of these people who question why my dialogue will have that additional heft in the same discussion praise how alive my characters feel … something that happens in part because of all this non-verbal communication in my dialogue.

See, here’s the thing, we as humans talk, act, and engage with non-verbal cues all the time, every day. They’re a vital part of how we communicate with one another, and how we engage with our fellow humans.

Now, what happens if we cut that out? Well, ever seen Terminator 2? If you haven’t, the antagonist (and, warning, major spoilers for a 30-year old movie here) is an inhuman killing machine—literally—in pursuit of the series main character. One of the things that makes the actor’s performance so memorable with audiences is how inhuman he is during the entire film: His expression is very static, he doesn’t gesture or signal, he hardly every reacts. The actor himself learned how to sprint, run, and do all his actions while breathing through his nose so that he wouldn’t open his mouth.

In other words, one of the ways the character comes off as an inhuman machine that just appears human is by the conscious removal of all these non-verbal cues we associate with being human. Cut that out … and well, we get the T-1000.

Quite honestly, this observation makes me believe that one of the reasons so many readers of my books constantly praise how real the characters felt to them is because of all that attention to the non-verbal cues. Even if they read over them without realizing it, those moments where a character shrugs, or pauses for a moment during conversation to take a bite of their meal, or waves their hand, adds to the fiction that these characters are living, breathing people just like the reader.

Now, this doesn’t mean I couldn’t overdo it. All things in moderation after all, and there are definitely moments where simple dialogue works just fine. But it does mean that keeping a thumb on the “pulse” of this non-verbal form of dialogue and making sure it’s on display in our dialogue plays an important part in bringing characters to life, and it shouldn’t be ignored.

But there’s another aspect of this to consider too. In the Tom Scott video, one of the important details he mentions is how often spoken word and gesture go together to strengthen one another. Again, this is the sort of thing that’s almost instinctive. But what this means in our writing is that conscious pairing of the two will strengthen a reader’s grasp of a scene because the combination of a gesture with word has connotations we interpret.

Take, for example, a hand wave. Let’s look at two scenes with a hand wave. Scene one:

“Sire,” the chamberlain asked. “Shall I fetch the minister of accounting?”

“No need,” the emperor said with a wave of his hand. “I can deal with this matter myself.”

Scene two:

“Sam!” Helen shouted across the crowded gym. “Over here!”

“Helen!” Sam gave a wave. ‘Be right there!”

Okay, so in both instances we had a wave, right? But how did you imagine them differently in your head? Were the characters expressions and mannerisms impacted by that wave? If you’re like most people, you likely saw that first wave as a dismissive “don’t worry” by the emperor, matched with an expression that said “Don’t bother.” But the second wave you likely saw as a friendly “hello” sort of motion, complete with expression.

How? Why? Because the spoken dialogue and the motion go together to build one another. Alone, the motion is unreadable without a lot of extra exposition. Dialogue alone is certainly functional … But together? Spoken dialogue and non-verbal dialogue combine to give us a full picture.

Again, this isn’t some new discovery of human existence, or even writing. As I said above, a lot of books do use points, or shrugs in conjunction with spoken dialogue. But a lot of them do it very sparingly, cutting it in favor of just having spoken words with little life from the characters.

This works, yes … but it runs the risk of making the characters like the T-1000 mentioned above. We as humans look for this kind of visual language even in our writing. And if it’s not there, well … the characters feel less like people and more like machines playing a part.

Okay then, so what does this mean for your writing? What’s the takeaway to improve your own works?

Don’t neglect non-verbal dialogue. Gestures, cues, signals … All are vital parts of human speech. And if we leave them out, or use them far too sparingly, our character’s won’t feel real. They’ll feel like simulacrums going through the motions.

Now, that isn’t to say we should fill all our interactions with them, note for note. No, that’d be too much, just as describing every beat of a battle or a fight can be too much.

But we shouldn’t neglect or worse, ignore, this vital component to dialogue. We should remember that our characters have actions, gestures, motions, and cues just as a real human being would.

Sands, neglecting or ignoring non-verbal dialogue has the potential to even pull a reader out of our work if we call attention to it. Imagine trying to sell a reader on the “inhumaness” of a character with no non-verbal dialogue tics, when every other character has already been shown as just as inhuman? Undercuts things, doesn’t it?

However, engaging our readers with this non-verbal dialogue does wonders to bring characters to life, and can even further differentiate them from one another. Think about two people you know and how different their body language is when talking, now apply that to writing and non-verbal dialogue. How two different characters act while speaking is just as much part of their character as the words they use.

So, let’s pack it up: Gestures and other non-verbal cues such as signals are as much a part of human dialogue as the spoken word, but often in writing character dialogue it can be tempting to forget that such things exist. This results in dialogue and character work that’s serviceable, but doesn’t serve to bring our characters to life the way embracing all aspects of dialogue could.

Again, there’s a balance to be found. I’d encourage experimenting with it a little to find the balance that works with you. Think about how your characters act while they speak. What gestures do they make? What signals do they perform? Think about it, write it, and see what it gets you.

That’s all for this week. Good luck, now get writing.


 

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