Writing Lesson #12—Do actions speak louder than words?

Too often, when we think about dialogue—about communication between our characters—we think only of the words they say to each other. It's claimed, however, that human beings use body language—actions—for the majority of their communication. It's therefore more than a little important to consider what the speaker or the spoken to person is physically doing in addition to, or instead of, his words.

Think about the many ways we convey what we mean without "saying" anything. We pound the table. We tap our fingers. We turn away. We lift one eyebrow. We frown, we smile, we wince, we leer. We cross our arms over our chest. We fling our arms wide, as if to embrace. We put our hands to our mouths. We shrug. We give a thumbs up. We pick at our cuticles. We slump.

Too often, we start freeway collisions and wind up with murder because one person makes a gesture rightly taken to be rude. He didn't have to make a sound. His message got through.

Less violently, think about the potential meanings and what you might show with the single action of having someone move or stand too close to someone else. Depending on what else you put with it, it would intensify the sense that the too-close person is intimidating, frightening, seductive or simply annoying. In any case, it would add tension to your protagonist's situation. Or, it could indicate that the too-close person is from a different culture, where different "boundaries" apply, in which case, it could serve as a clue. In any case-you should understand that physical actions are part of the provisions you pack in your bag of tricks.

Emotion often gives off physical signals (and when they're absent, we notice that, thinking that the person is "cold" or "unemotional") and they're as important as the words a speaker uses. Sometimes the signals are blatant, as, for example, a nervous tic or twitch, the inability to meet the other person's eyes—a giveaway signal that poker players call a "tell". Sometimes they're more subtle—a slight tightening of the muscles around the eyes, a straighter posture, etc.

An interesting exercise can be made of spending time in an airport, train station or restaurant—any place filled with strangers you can observe as if they were in a silent film. Watch their body language as they speak to each other and pay attention to your visceral reactions. Is there something in a gesture that makes you dislike that man across the way? Add it to your writing data bank to give to someone you want the reader to dislike. What makes you suspect that man wants nothing more than to get away from that woman who is hugging him? What's he physically doing that conveys that? Is a seduction going on somewhere else? Is that teenager furious about something? Is that woman on the brink of tears, but controlling it? Is that man trouble for that woman? What about their body language makes you think that? (If the idea of hanging out in a public space doesn't appeal to you, you can almost duplicate this by turning the sound off while you watch a TV drama. How much can you glean simply by the actors' physical movements and expressions?)

You're lucky if you've never felt a flare of anger when you're in a store and the person who is supposed to wait on you is on the phone on what sounds a personal call, or talking with another equally unapproachable salesperson—and who makes not a single gesture indicating that he's aware you exist or might want something of him. That's a case of no actions speaking more loudly than words (and we know that the unspoken words would be something akin to—but much less polite than—I don't give a fig about you.")

We are conditioned to be tuned in to subtle shifts of posture and a myriad of gestures in our lives and to understand that they signify messages being sent. This awareness is probably part of our original, hardwired survival kit so that we recognized danger or the lack of it. Use that awareness, and put it onto the page.

As you write, slow down and try to imagine the physical component of what your characters are emotionally experiencing. Is the room cold or too hot? Is the gun she's carrying heavy, awkward? When he makes that dramatic leap—do his muscles ache, rip, move painlessly? Is his heart pounding, racing, skipping beats? Is he sweating? Does his hand shake when he lights the cigarette? Or is he humming happily—and insanely—as he stalks his prey?

If you show us a character insisting that he adores your protagonist—but he's backing away from her as he says it—or taking out his manicure set and buffing his nails—or forgetting what he's saying as he ogles a girl passing by—you don't have to tell us that he lacks sincerity, because you've shown it through a carefully chosen action. If you fail to think about actions and to get meaningful ones onto the page, you're in essence blinding your reader, who can only hear what's going on. But when you describe the meaningful actions of a character—including what's felt by your point of view character and what's observable from outside for all others—the reader is right there, seeing precisely what you have in mind. It's a true "showing."

When we're talking about action, we have to mention verbs. It may not seem exciting to talk about a part of speech, but verbs are our primary conveyors of action. Once you have a draft, make one step along the path of revision a check of all your verbs.

Why have somebody "enter" a room if you could sharpen our mental image of how he does it? Could he swagger in? Strut in? Shuffle in? Burst in? Limp in? Should the door merely "open"—or could it burst open, swing open, fly open, creak open inch by inch? Think about your characters and how they move, and give them verbs that show it. (Much better than adverbs that tell us how he does it: e.g., he walked quickly.)

Even if actions don't speak more loudly than words, they definitely speak as loudly, and they're a powerful method of transporting what you see in your mind into the mind of your readers. Make sure your writing is "action-packed."

Next lesson: Playing fair and fooling the reader: burying clues.

On to Lesson 13!

Adapted from: You Can Write a Mystery, by Gillian Roberts.


© Gillian Roberts.