Capturing nonverbal cues in writing

Lately I’ve been thinking about the power of nonverbal communication. You’ve probably heard about the influence non-verbal cues have on our first impressions of people, as well as our day-to-day communication.

Have you ever noticed that it can be hard to get an email or text message to convey the right tone? Part of this may be due to the fact that text-based communication lacks non-verbals. Emoticons can help fill this gap, but there are times that they aren’t appropriate (such as an email to a potential employer) as well as times that you simply can’t create an emoticon to communicate what you want to communicate.

I’m still looking for a way to capture a nose-wrinkle. *sighs in frustration*

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Emoticons probably won’t help you when you’re trying to capture emotion or complexity of meaning in poetry or dialogue, either. (Notice I said probably, because if someone hasn’t already written an experimental piece that does this beautifully, I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened at some point in the future).

How can we as writers capture the complexity of nonverbal communication in black and white? I’m still working on this. I know that I’m pretty expressive non-verbally; even when I try not to be, I’m fairly transparent. For this reason, you would think that I would be extremely good at picking up on non-verbal cues, but I’m not.

I’m trying to be more conscious of the subtle things that I do with my face or body when I’m feeling certain ways, and I’m also trying to be more conscious of the non-verbals the people around me are using. Even if I’m interpreting these signals incorrectly, there must be a reason that I perceive them the way I do.

It’s more than just the words they say that make us believe the girl we just met doesn’t like us, or that our best friend is angry at us and won’t tell us, or that the guy we sit next to in class has a crush on us. Whether we are right or wrong, we base many of our judgements on nonverbal cues (lowered eyebrows, blushing, the distance another person stands from you, ans so on).

That’s why including descriptions of this kind of nonverbal communication can add depth to your writing (particularly to dialogue). It takes skill to make this sound natural–I know I still have quite a bit of practicing to do in this area!

I’ve also been thinking about the ways characters’ interpretations (or misinterpretations) of non-verbal cues can provide momentum for the plot. Nonverbal cues can be frustratingly ambiguous. A character could perceive cues that don’t exist, or correctly identify a nonverbal cue but ascribe the incorrect meaning to it.

Maybe I’ll write a story someday that explores these ideas. Maybe not. Either way, thank you for reading these ramblings of mine! If you have any thoughts about non-verbal communication, or tips about how to incorporate nonverbal cues into writing, please let me know in the comments below šŸ™‚



4 thoughts on “Capturing nonverbal cues in writing

    • Mmm, that’s an interesting idea! I know that when I’m reading a book, if a character has certain traits that remind me of people I’m acquainted with, I’ll visualize the character using the non-verbals of the people I know in real life… I don’t know how one goes about creating that feeling as a writer though, except by creating strong characters to begin with.

  1. I try to sprinkle non-verbal cues throughout the story, because they are so important — but it is hard! I too spend a lot of time paying attention to the ways I give non-verbal cues, and also paying attention to the cues given by others, watching them to try and figure out how I might describe them, what someone else might observe. It’s especially challenging because many of the clues are things that we don’t necessarily recognize in our everyday, they are things we have come to read and interpret without thought.

    • I agree! One of the reasons it’s so difficult to capture non-verbal communication in writing is because most people use and interpret it without thinking about it. It’s like riding a bike–most people can do it, but they can’t articulate how to do it.

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