Non-Verbal Dialogue

As the saying goes, “Actions speak louder than words”. While referring to situations like broken promises and hypocrisy, this can be considered the perfect defense for silent films, like this year’s Oscar contender, The Artist?

It may seem a writer shouldn’t heed this saying. Books are in words, after all. No images. But it can be applied in a different way.

Sometimes, it is better for a character to not verbalize, but instead let their actions do the talking. Let’s call this non-verbal dialogue.

In a way, this is a different form of showing. Instead of a character telling another character their thoughts, they’re letting their body language, emotions, or actions show what they want to convey. Maybe they are in a state which they can’t/don’t want to speak.

In the end, non-verbal dialogue is a variant of indirect dialogue.

The idea for this article came to mind when I was using my writing folder to do some practice. I was considering a new character, so I decided to write a scene between one of the existing characters I was fleshing out. Since it is spoiler material, I prepared a generic example of the scene.

 I recently read a writing guide that warned about being too bland about dialogue, so I reached a moment that unfolded like this. Examples of non-verbalized dialogue are underlined:

Man: (He enters the small room and sees the Girl’s small form laying on  the ground).
Girl: (The girl looks up and sees what’s in the man’s hands. She places her toy to the side, sits up, folds her hands together, and raise her shoulders).
Man: This for you. (He hands the Girl a figurine in the likeness of her).
Girl: (She cradles the figurine in her hands and traces her fingers within the crevices of the figure. She brushes one of the imperfections. A smile slowly forms on her face.) You didn’t use your special tools.
Man: It was worth the effort. Personally, the itsy bitsy flaws add charm to it, no?
Girl: (She rotates the figurine in her hands, tapping her finger tips against it and produce a thumping noise. Her smile is wider. After a few seconds, she ceases all movement. Her smile fades away. She gives the figurine a slight throw and let it roll around on the concrete ground. She looks away from the Man and at the gray, bare walls. She inches away.)
Man: Sweetie, you know I can’t let you out of this room.

Understand the situation now? Although I didn’t give any more context, what the girl’s clearly “saying” in the end is “This doesn’t cut it. I want to be let out of this room”.

Of course, non-verbal dialogue doesn’t have to involve body language. For example, even after all of these months, this example from GRACELING by Kristin Cashore stays in my head:

            [Po asked,] “Can you kill with an arrow? Or do you only ever wound?”
            [Katsa] remembered [Po’s] raspy voice from Murgon’s courtyard, and it was taunting her now, as it had done then. She didn’t turn to him. She simply took two arrows from her quiver, notched them together, pulled, and released. One flew to her target’s head, and the other to its chest. It hit with a satisfying thud, and glowed palely in the flickering torchlight.
            “I’ll never make the mistake of challenging you to and archery match.” There was laughter to his voice.

What Katsa basically “said” was “I can kill with an arrow, thank you very much.” But her demonstrating this is ten times more effective. Even without the first sentence in Katsa’s paragraph, the details (the head, its chest, satisfying thud) convey her annoyance toward Po well.

            When I revise Manifestation Files more, I might incorporate more of this into one of my characters.

YOUR TURN: Are there any examples of non-verbal dialogue in your story? Are there any places where you can replace spoken dialogue with body language or an action.