Monday, June 24, 2013

HELPING CHARACTERS USE NON-VERBAL COMMUNICATION


 
 
Sharon Dunn writes both humorous mysteries and romantic suspense. Her book Night Prey (Love Inspired Suspense) won a Carol award for 2011. Her first book Romance Rustlers and Thunderbird Thieves was a Romantic Times top pick and finalist in the inspirational Novel of the Year. Sassy Cinderella and the Valiant Vigilante, the second book in that same series (The Ruby Taylor mysteries) was voted book of the year by ACFW. Zero Visibility is her fifth Love Inspired Suspense with another one scheduled for release in March 2013 titled Guard Duty. When she is not writing, Sharon spends time with her husband, three children, two cats and a nervous little border collie named Bart. You can read more about Sharon and her books by visiting her website.
 
 
HELPING CHARACTERS USE NON-VERBAL COMMUNICATION
 
The 1997 remake of 12 Angry Men chronicles the deliberation of a jury as they change from an eleven to one decision in favor of conviction to all jurors deciding that the boy on trial is not guilty. The movie also provides a good lesson on how writers can have characters use non-verbal communication effectively. Throughout the movie, prejudices rise to the surface, personal problems distort judgment, and antagonism and alliances between the men emerge. At the end of the film, as the jury leaves the deliberation room, one man pulls out a chair for an older gentleman on the jury and hands him his hat, two others help their fellow jurors get their coats on. Finally, the juror who pushed for not guilty from the start gets the coat of the juror who was the last hold out for guilty and helps him into it.  No dialogue is spoken. Four times, gestures of kindness between men who were at each others’ throats take place.  This silent scene is so much more powerful than if one of the characters had simply said, “I think we’ve come to a place where we can respect each other despite our differences.” Making the same point using with non-verbal cues was much more effective storytelling.
 
The above example from 12 Angry Men is a solid example of plot moving forward without dialogue. Using silence and non-verbal communication in this way avoids a story becoming overly preachy. A reader or a viewer is allowed to come to their own conclusions. What is interesting about the example from this movie is that the same message, men who have come to a place of respect after a fierce battle, is not shown just once between two characters, but four times. The repetition drives the point home, but remains subtle because of the lack of dialogue.       

Characters can speak in code and even lie, but body language gives them away.  One way to use non-verbal cues is to have it stand in contrast to dialogue.  If a character says “I’m open to any suggestions” and then crosses his arms, the closed off posture demonstrates that he is thinking the exact opposite of what he is saying. When an actor prepares for a role, he is encouraged to figure out what the subtext of his dialogue is. Subtext is simply what the actor really means. It’s real dialogue beneath the spoken dialogue. An actor or a character can say “I love you.” And really mean “Please don’t leave me” or “I hate you.”  The subtext of dialogue is usually evident in non-verbal communication, through eye contact or lack of it and vocal quality. Proximity, whether a character is advancing or retreating from another character, also communicates subtext. When actors for a movie or stage play are blocked (meaning the director tells them where they stand and when they move) one of the things a director considers is what unspoken message the movement conveys to an audience. In the same way, in fiction the movement of characters from touching to being across the room from each other tells the reader something.        

Finally, non-verbal communication tells the reader who a character is, what he or she is like. Someone who constantly invades other people’s personal space will be viewed as aggressive or socially inept. Or the inability to understand personal space may hint that the character has learning disability like autism. Vocal quality as well reveals what kind of person your character is. In the current book I am working on, I have a character whose body language suggest she is about to share a confidence and then she talks at full volume. Without coming out and saying it, I hint at my character’s background of not having been taught some basic manners. Non-verbal descriptions of characters demonstrates their level of confidence and comfort with their surroundings and present situation. A character conveys a message through a nervous gesture, tugging on a button or tapping of the foot. Inability to maintain eye contact or a breaking off of eye contact influences the readers understanding of the characters’ motives. Thinking about body language is especially important when you want to convey a character’s thought but you are not in that character’s POV.        

Depending on which expert you talk to, non-verbal communication constitutes between 60 to 90 percent of our communication. It makes sense then to incorporate it into our fiction. Sometimes a scene is more powerful when the plot is moved forward without dialogue. Non-verbal communication can be used to show what a character is really thinking and feeling, even if he is saying something different. Finally, people communicate a great deal about themselves and their state of mind and background through body language. Dialogue is an effective way to move a scene forward, but balance the spoken word of characters with the unspoken messages.     

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

1 comment:

  1. I didn't know they remade the movie. Wow! I still like the original. Nice post. Thanks.

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