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Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Creating Nonverbal Communication in Fiction

This is from Randy Ingermanson's ("the Snowflake guy") latest newsletter

Last month, I mentioned that I was studying Margie Lawson's course "Empowering Character Emotions." I've now worked through the course twice, and all I can say is, wow! This is great stuff. Margie is a psychologist with a TON of insights into characters. You can order her course on her web site at this location: http://www.margielawson.com/

One thing I learned from Margie is that 93% of interpersonal communication is nonverbal. Only 7% is verbal.

The 93% that is nonverbal takes two main forms, visible and audible. Let's look at an example:

If I tell you, "Have a nice day" with a sarcastic tone of voice while handing you a dead weasel, I have sent you three communications:

* "Have a nice day." -- verbal
* Sarcastic tone -- audible nonverbal
* The weasel -- visible nonverbal

Note that the the verbal communication sends you one message, while the two nonverbal communications send you the opposite message. If you have any common sense at all, you'll ignore the verbal and believe the nonverbal communication.

Understanding and using nonverbal communication can enrich your fiction. Let's look at an example of nonverbal communication in THE PROMISE, by Chaim Potok. In this passage, the protagonist Reuven is at a carnival with his girlfriend Rachel and Rachel's young cousin Michael. The three are being cheated in one of those wretched carnival games that looks easy and is actually impossible.

They're hoping to win an expensive radio, but they still need a couple of points.

When Reuven, Rachel, and Michael begin getting suspicious, the carnival pitchman's father comes in to reassure them. Like them, he's Jewish and he talks to them about coming to America from Russia. This resonates with Reuven, whose father also came from Russia. After some serious sweet-talking, the old carnie allays their fears and urges them to continue the game:


The old man shrugged apologetically. "I live and travel with the carnival. I know only the carnival. I do not know what goes on outside. Here and there I hear a little and read a little. But I was not so fortunate as you." He lapsed into silence. Behind him the pitchman stood very still, staring down at the gleaming radio. The old man was quiet a long time, his eyes moist and sad. He shook his head slowly. "Nu," he said.

"Back to business. You are in good hands here now." He had reverted to English. "Schmeiss," he said, smiling.

"See how much you will win from me."

I felt calm and protected. The tension and fear were gone now from the game.

I put seven dollars on the counter next to the one-dollar bill.

"Go ahead and play," I said to Michael. "I'll pay and you'll play. All right?"

Michael grinned eagerly and picked up the cup. Rachel nodded, her eyes very bright.

Randy sez: What's going on here is that the old con man has allayed the fears of Reuven and his friends by a carefully orchestrated set of nonverbal communications that precisely match his verbal communications: "You are in good hands here now."

Let's take this passage apart in slow motion and analyze everything the old man (and his son, the
pitchman) do. I'll insert my own running commentary between segments. My comments are based on the entire context of the chapter, including those parts I'm not showing here.


* The old man shrugged apologetically.

Randy sez: Nonverbal visible communication that transmits the message, "I'm just a humble man who knows nothing."


* "I live and travel with the carnival. I know only the carnival. I do not know what goes on outside. Here and there I hear a little and read a little. But I was not so fortunate as you."

Randy sez: Verbal communication that says precisely the same thing his shrug said earlier.


* He lapsed into silence.

Randy sez: Nonverbal visible communication that reinforces the idea that this is a humble, honest man.


* Behind him the pitchman stood very still, staring down at the gleaming radio.

Randy sez: Nonverbal visible communication that shows his fear that Reuven and Rachel and Michael will win the radio, and that the old man has gone over to their side and will practically give them that radio. They're playing good-carnie/bad-carnie.


* The old man was quiet a long time, his eyes moist and sad.

Randy sez: Two distinctly different visible nonverbal communications. The first is being quiet. The second is having moist, sad eyes. Both tell the same story -- that the old man is resigned to losing the radio to Reuven and Rachel and Michael if they play one more time. The clear message is that they can't lose.


* He shook his head slowly.

Randy sez: Another visible nonverbal communication that gives the same message -- he will inevitably lose that radio to them.


* "Nu," he said. "Back to business. You are in good hands here now." He had reverted to English.

Randy sez: The old man has been speaking to them in Yiddish, gaining their trust by an appeal to their shared heritage. Now he switches to English, which is an audible nonverbal message, that it is time to get back to the business of the game. This is identical to the verbal message he gives, "Back to business." Then he reinforces the message of trust he has been building for several pages with another verbal communication, "You are in good hands here now."


* "Schmeiss," he said, smiling. "See how much you will win from me."

Randy sez: Another set of mixed verbal and nonverbal messages that all say the same thing.

There are three primary messages:

"Schmeiss" is Yiddish, so it conveys once again using an audible nonverbal signal that they are safe, because he is their fellow Jew and will treat them honestly.

He smiles, a visible nonverbal communication that reinforces the message that he is their friend.

"See how much you will win from me." is a verbal communication that tells them they can't lose.


* I felt calm and protected. The tension and fear were gone now from the game. I put seven dollars on the counter next to the one-dollar bill.

Randy sez: The above elaborate set of communications has put Reuven completely at ease. He is now quite certain that he's about to win. He communicates this certainty with an action, putting his money down, which is a visible nonverbal communication that he's ready to play.


* "Go ahead and play," I said to Michael. "I'll pay and you'll play. All right?"

Randy sez: Verbal communication that reinforces the message Reuven just sent nonverbally.


* Michael grinned eagerly and picked up the cup.

Randy sez: Visible nonverbal communication that shows, in two actions, that Michael is also ready to play. He too has been completely conned by the old man. We see this by his actions, even though we're not inside his head.


* Rachel nodded, her eyes very bright.

Randy sez: Two more visible nonverbal communications.
Rachel nods, showing that she agrees with Reuven. Her bright eyes show us that she, too, is taken in. She believes that they are moments away from winning.


In the pages that follow, the old man cheats Reuven, Rachel, and Michael out of every dollar they have and then verbally abuses them when they accuse him of cheating. Reuven, Rachel, and Michael are furious when they realize they've been had.

But why were they had? People lie all the time, at least verbally. Why didn't Reuven and friends realize the old man was lying?

When we're lied to, we usually know it or suspect it.

The reason is that we pick up on the many nonverbal communications that tell us something isn't right.

Shifting eyes, nervous tics, faltering voice, and many similar nonverbal cues tip us off.

The reason Reuven and his friends were conned is that the old carnie gave them a very long string of nonverbal cues that completely lined up with his words. In order to show this, I'd have to copy off several pages on either side of this passage.

There are hundreds of forms of nonverbal communication, both visible and audible. As novelists, we often settle for a few easy ways. So our characters are constantly shifting their eyes, nervously ticking, or faltering in voice. Or whatever cue we decide to overuse.

But we have many more options, if only we'd use them. Watch some of the great actors. What tricks do they play in order to show you nonverbally far more than they're saying? Watch Bruce Willis in action, or Meryl Streep, or Nicolas Cage, or Judy Dench, and see what they can show you with their eyes, face, hands, voice tone.

For a LARGE number of examples that cover many more aspects of showing character emotions, I'll point you once again to the terrific course on Margie Lawson's web site:
http://www.MargieLawson.com



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2 comments:

Kathy at Sumballo said...

Very helpful and informative article, Tricia. I'm heading over to Margie Lawson's site now, to check out the course you recommended. Thanks!

Tricia Goyer said...

I loved Margie's courses. She's a great teacher!