top of page

90% Non-verbal Stuff — Part 2

In case you missed it, this week I’m focusing on some writing advice from people/authors I really like and admire. I asked each of them three questions:

  1.  If 90% of all communication is non-verbal, how should authors portray this?

  2. How have you seen non-verbal communication used in other books? 

  3. What tricks have you personally tried that worked without weighing down the  manuscript?

Part One of this topic was covered yesterday. (Check it out here.) Today is Part Two!

The first bit of advice comes from my talented friend Cassie Mae. Check out her blog here. Take it away Cassie.

1)     A lot of authors give their characters a quirk.  Something that tells the reader that the specific character is this when they do this. For example, in Fallen by Lauren Kate, the mc (Luce) cracks her knuckles whenever she gets nervous or uncomfortable.  Not only did this send an awesome sound ringing through my ears, it told me exactly how she reacted to a certain situation.

2)    Haha, should have read the second question before answering the previous one.  But yes, in lots and lots of books, there are silent conversations all the time.  A lot of things are said in a simple expression.  The cock of an eyebrow, mouth hanging open, a huge goofy grin, clicking of teeth.  And then there’s what happens below the face.  Tapping feet, pacing, hands on the hips, shivering.  All that stuff can be blended together without the author saying… I was frustrated. 3) I really rely on using the five senses when I do nonverbal communication. Sounds, tastes, touch, sight, and smells. Without getting too flowery over it, an author can properly express how the mc or the other characters are feeling using their senses. And when I see that what I’ve written in 20 words can still be conveyed in 10, I do some chopping.

And of course, as I said before, I give them each a quirk.  🙂

Awesome, Cassie. I love character quirks, too. Especially nervous habits.

When I first started writing, I started reading like a mad woman, trying to see how other authors said certain things. Probably the most valuable thing I did was take notes. If something worked, I jotted down what it was and what I liked about it. Then I started compiling an Excel spreadsheet (because I’m addicted to Excel) and categorizing each aspect of the quote. For example, I would log which emotion it fell under, which part of the body (eyes, mouth, feet), what action they were doing at the time, which verb was used, which adjective or adverb. Then I could sort for all the “Nervous” quotes and see how other authors explained someone was nervous without saying, “Hey, she’s nervous. Really nervous. Really, really, really, really…”

To give you an idea of how crazy I was/am, I have 840 logged quotes in this file right now, with 69 of those being classified under Nervous/Hesitant. (Wow. There’s a bunch of nervous characters out there.)

Like Cassie said, there are lots and lots of ways authors say things between the lines. Start looking and, if you want, make an Excel file of your own.

The second bit of advice today comes from my writing partner (and sister-in-law) Sarah Belliston.

Sarah: I ran into this problem with my WIP when I searched for the word “look”. I found that my characters were doing a whole lot of looking. “Glare” was a big one too. But gosh darn it they were angry! They needed to glare! At everyone! All the time! (watch out for overusing exclamation points too). Apart from having an angst-ridden story, I was being wholly uncreative. The only way I was conveying emotion was telling the reader what their bodies were doing. (There are only so many ways you can describe furrowed eyebrows.) Here’s an example not from my story. Jane walked down the hall and saw her boyfriend Tom with his arm around Wanda. She crossed her arms and glared at them as she passed. I started to look through my scenes truly from the character’s POV. How would an angry person describe seeing her boyfriend’s arm around another girl? How would she walk down the hall if she was furious? What would she think Wanda looked like at that moment? Jane paced her steps, forced her feet to keep time with the others, kept them from running to Tom like they wanted to. Just when she trusted them to mind her wishes, she caught a glimpse of red and gold. His letterman jacket. But it didn’t look right, it wasn’t filled and tight across his shoulders, it was baggy and loose on a much smaller frame. Jane’s feet forgot what they were supposed to do, she stood still in the middle of the moving stream of people. A blonde head was atop the jacket, the sound of breaking glass was laughter coming from its mouth, a mouth too close to Tom’s perfect hair. Then a strong arm that should have filled the jacket, Tom’s arm, snaked across the flimsy shoulders of the blonde head. Jane still stood in the hallway, the stream complained and Tom’s pathetic smile faded from his face. The blonde head cried out when his arm gripped her like a vice. She shrank against the lockers as she met Jane’s eyes.

Get the difference? Without saying it, you knew that Jane was glaring at her. Think about the verbs you are using, think about how you describe the setting. Is the rain falling? Or is pounding? Slapping the cement? Soaking the ground? Some physical movement is needed, but when you have the ability to be inside the character’s head, coloring the world with their view, you don’t need non-verbal cues to tell us what they are thinking. It’s the same for whoever they interact with. As humans we process, dismiss, and evaluate a large portion of what we see every day without consciously acknowledging it. It’s the same with non-verbal cues. I know when my husband walks through the door what kind of day he’s had. I notice the sagged shoulders, the blank expression, the way he sits his bag down. But I do it all in a matter of seconds. Then I move on to asking how his day was. When writing a scene, setting up emotion should be measured. Does the main character notice the shoulders, but not the expression? Does she notice anything or is she too busy making dinner, so when she asks about his day, she’s shocked by his sullen response? Or is this an important day and she is waiting for his homecoming and reaction with bated breath? I once read a book that used the metaphor “looked like a kicked puppy” three times in 400 pages. That was still often enough to make me notice and remember, even though the author probably had no idea she’d repeated herself. If you come up with a particularly good metaphor, only use it once! It will have more impact. Then think of more to use at other times. In the end, variety is what makes a book great. Using different methods and different words. Always looking for the best way to tell the story. The beauty of it is that we all have something different to say. That’s why we keep writing.

So great! Get inside your character’s head. Imagine you’re in their shoes—literally—and then write. And as Sarah so beautifully illustrated, how you tell a story is just as important (if not more) as the story itself. There was a huge difference between her first Jane example and the second.

My short bit of advice for the day: watch people.

No, not in a creepy, stalker-ish kind of way. Maybe the better word is ‘notice.’ Notice how people act when they’re angry, sad, nervous, or depressed. Pay attention to your friends, your kids, even the lady at the story, when their words and their body language don’t match up. And like I said before, make sure you read a lot. There are authors who have mastered this craft and half the time you won’t notice the non-verbal stuff unless you’re looking for it. Then take notes so that when you’re in a heated scene and you just can’t think of how to express the intensity of emotion, you’ll have some ideas of where to turn (please don’t plagiarize, these notes are just to spark your imagination).

Remember, non-verbal cues are NON-VERBAL. Don’t tell me what I can “see” for myself.

And just for a laugh, I had to include this chart because it demonstrates this point so well (though I don’t agree with the assessment.)

What kind of characters do you have?

Thanks again to Cassie and Sarah for adding your amazing thoughts here for our benefit!! And Tricia and Sharon yesterday as well. You guys are awesome!

Tomorrow, advice from another author and then a little (or a lot) more from me.

If you have some thoughts or advice on the three questions you’d like to throw into the mix, please comment below. We’re all in this crazy writing world together. Thankfully. 🙂

  1. read Non-verbal Part 1

  2. read Non-verbal Part 2

  3. read Non-verbal Part 3


Related Posts

See All


bottom of page