Monday, October 12, 2009

Show, Don’t Tell: Body Language and Nonverbals in Writing

In reviewing submissions, I’ve given more thought to the challenge of ‘showing, not telling’ in fiction, or as Henry James would say: Dramatize! Dramatize! Dramatize! Like all writing techniques, this can be done well or badly. To illustrate this dual-edged sword, I thought it would be appropriate to provide a swashbuckling example.

In Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, I enjoyed the following scene between our hero, D’Artagnan, and the cunning villainess, Milady de Winter (“milady” in the story).

At ten o’clock milady began to appear uneasy. D’Artagnan understood what it meant. She looked at the clock, got up, sat down again, and smiled at D’Artagnan as much to say: ‘You are doubtless very likable, but you would be charming if you would go away.’

D’Artagnan rose and took his hat; milady gave him her hand to kiss. The young man felt that she pressed his hand, and he understood that she did so, not out of coquetry, but from a feeling of gratitude at his departure.

I enjoyed this passage in which the narrator, speaking from the point of view of D’Artagnan, interpreted the body language of milady. Thanks to the description of the feelings and nonverbals, my imagination went to work and brought me deeper into the writing. Even as a 21st century reader I could enjoy the drama of this scene written in the 19th century and set in the 17th century. I could truly imagine milady fighting back a smirk, while D’Artagnan hid his own intrigue behind a façade. I could truly relate to the scene.

Indeed, haven’t we all observed such nonverbal clues and suspected we were an unwelcome guest at sometime in our lives? Do you remember how it felt to interact with someone you suspected to be insincere? Or have you enjoyed a scene in which two hostile characters were at each other’s throats while somehow maintaining a semblance of gentility and good etiquette (perhaps the beginning of Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds")?

Granted, this passage from The Three Musketeers did not rely solely on body language and nonverbals for drama. As mentioned, Dumas also provided D’Artagnan’s own interpretation of those signals, but this element only enhanced the tension while adding a bit of humor. It also provided our hero with an entertaining exit from the scene.

Would every scene benefit by using body language to enhance the drama? According to writer Francine Prose, it depends. She includes body language and nonverbal communication within her wider definition of gesture. In Reading Like a Writer, Prose wrote that the “definition of gesture includes physical actions, often unconscious or semi-reflexive, including what is called body language and excluding larger, more definite or momentous actions. I would not call picking up a gun and shooting someone a gesture. On the other hand, language—that is, word choice—can function as a gesture . . .”

In her book, Prose gave many examples of effective use of gesture, but she also warned against physical clichés. She also cautioned against use of gratuitous gesture because “unless what the character does is unexpected or unusual, or truly important to the narrative, the reader will assume that response without having to be told.”

Nevertheless, a case of writer’s block or a scene suffering from dullness could both be cured by a dose of body language for dramatic effect. For a concise review of these topics, see the Wikipedia articles on body language and nonverbal communication. They remind us that “body language may provide cues as to the attitude or state of mind of a person. For example, it may indicate aggression, attentiveness, boredom, a relaxed state, pleasure, amusement, besides many other cues."

Alexandre Dumas most certainly understood that 60-70 percent of all meaning is derived from nonverbal behavior.* It explains why so much of the The Three Musketeers consists of sword fights. -- by Matthew Bergstrom


*Engleberg, Isa N. Working in Groups: Communication Principles and Strategies. My Communication Kit Series, 2006. page 133

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