Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Technique Tuesday: Nonverbal Communication (and why your characters need it)

Every time the phone rang yesterday (well, everyday for months) I knew I was going to be manipulated, lied to, and scammed by a bunch of people I've never met. It rang a lot. You see, several months ago someone in my biological background (that I've never met or even knew existed) died and I alone am left to clean up the mess. From 3,000 miles away.

And it's a BIG gnarly mess.

A landfill sized mess of smelly, rotting trash.

Every day more vile people come out of the woodwork. What began as Shock and Awe (or Truth is Indeed Stranger Than Fiction) has morphed into a festering pile of slimy, greedy people holding their hands out, wanting, demanding, lying. So much selfishness and greed cloaked only for a few minutes in pretty words. Sometimes they're good liars, and I believe them. I mean it's a phone call, I can't SEE their face, or their hands, and I'm missing their nonverbal clues as to their real intentions. (Not to worry, they're so vile, they can't keep the verbal/tonal act up for very long. And since they cannot see me, they don't know that I'm taking notes. Even the 'good' ones trip up and by the next time they call me, their stories change, their lies revealed.)

Yeah, so all this is my personal crap (and I promise I'm coming to a writerly point...), and it kicked my ass yesterday...to the point of tears and sarcastic laughter and finally turning off the ringer.

I was so flattened by it all, that my to-do list was delegated or blown off as I flopped on the couch last night and turned on the mindless TV (which I rarely do...though, beginning Sunday nights, you will find me in front of the tube again! ;). The telly came awake to the Fox channel. We have a million channels (we have a sat. dish and ALL the movie channels and sport pkgs.), and it came on to Fox...and some show called Lie To Me was just starting. I had planned to check out the movie channels or the TiVo'd list, but somehow I started watching this Lie To Me (which I'd never heard of). It's weird how these things happen, yes?
Here's the Fox blurb on the series Lie To Me:

LIE TO ME is the compelling drama series inspired by the scientific discoveries of a real-life psychologist who can read clues embedded in the human face, body and voice to expose the truth and lies in criminal investigations.

DR. Cal Lightman (Tim Roth) is the world's leading deception expert. If you lie to Lightman, he'll see it in your face and your posture, or hear it in your voice. If you shrug your shoulder, rotate your hand, or even just slightly raise your lower lip, Lightman will spot the lie. But as he well knows, his scientific ability is both a blessing and a curse in his personal life, where family and friends deceive each other as readily as criminals and strangers do.
I watched it. It wasn't awful, in fact, at times it was damn intriguing. (It is based on a real DR. Lightman, and he, I've learned, has a blog that I found fascinating.) I don't know if I'd watch it again, but the point last night was the irony (that I don't have these clues available to me dealing with the scummy people I'm dealing with from 3,000 miles away) and the lesson.

And, naturally, it all led to writerly thoughts.

As writers often do, I was thinking how I could use this insanity in my life right now in my fiction. The truth is, most of it is SO crazy, the characters so cliched, the story so over the top, it wouldn't ring true in fiction (such is my life). BUT, I did take-away this:

Using Nonverbal Communication in our writing.  Our characters, and what they DO (and what you SHOW -- not tell) is important and each movement tells us something about them, how they're really feeling.
Think about it...in real life, most of us don't realize we are doing it, but every day we make judgements and conclusions, interactions and understandings about and with people by their nonverbal communication.

The way someone: moves or holds their shoulder(s), raises an eyebrow or both, lowers their eyebrows, lowers their eyes, or makes direct eye contact, looks up, shifts eyes side to side, closes their eyes, taps their foot, how they sit, cross their legs, leans, rubs their face, wrings their hands, cracks their knuckles, clenches their fists, how they walk (shuffle, stomp, stumble, bounce?), stands/stance, posture, holds their head, shakes his head, hangs her head,jerks their head, stands or leans close, touches your arm (or leg), stands at a distance, leans away, jerks or pulls away...the list goes on and on, with subtle micro-expressions making all the difference...and I didn't even mention the mouth/tongue/lips.

These nuances are invaluable to our real life and we act on body language and nonverbal cues by instinct every single day.
And so should our characters (and our readers).

"I'm wanted for murder," he said and crossed his arms over his chest, looking me straight in the eye.

"I'm wanted for murder." He'd put the frozen peas back in the freezer and was now looking in the cupboards. "You know how to make pancakes?"

"I'm wanted for murder." He leaned in close and smiled.

"I'm wanted for murder!" Arms flapping, eyes wide, he began pacing and sweating.

 All very different, yes? What if he glanced away after saying he's wanted for murder? I know these aren't great examples...I just whipped 'em out. But you get the idea.

I like to take a notebook and pen out to public places and watch people, observe, take notes, increase my awareness of nonverbal cues and communication. I like the cafe at B&N, and sitting on a park bench, fairs and festivals, a bar, parties...anywhere I can watch people interact. Good stuff, listening with your eyes! 

I hope you are having a wonderful week thus far!



Theresa Milstein said...

I'm sorry you're dealing with this mess and a slew of greedy people. Draining circumstances often zap creativity. I hope the nightmare ends soon.

It's important to reveal about character by action. I never thought of it with lying before. Thanks!

JEM said...

This sounds crazy, I'm sorry you're having to deal with it! But this is great advice, and a good reminder. Thanks for turning your pain into a good post. Hope it gets better.

T.D. Newton said...

Sounds like a crazy story.

Now you've got me interested in this show, great.

Very good point on the non-verbals. The characters don't just speak, they need to do things that complement their words and show their mood and personalities. It's a great way to give a character depth, like someone on some TV show always eating when they're in a scene. You may not notice it unless you're really examining things, but it's something that puts more dimension to them.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

I really liked that last example, it was such a contrast to the previous (perhaps more subtle) examples that it made me giggle. I'm sorry you're having such a tough time, hang in there!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

They are, too, great examples! Really, I could see the different motivation in each one you gave.
And I'm so sorry you are dealing with a bunch of liars. Not fun, at all.

Aubrie said...

What do these people want? Money? Sheesh, to cash in on someone who died is bad karma.

I'm sorry you have to deal with this. At least you have some new villains for your writing!

Rebecca @ Diary of a Virgin Novelist said...

Ugh. So sorry to hear about the mess you're dealing with bit great post. I've been thinking lately that I have been so upset with wordcounts and page numbers that I have forgotten the small things that I love: Watching people, writing observations in notebooks, mentally remembering the way something smells. All these things that light up my writing I have pushed aside. And I miss them!

Piedmont Writer said...

Fascinating story Dearest, I'm sorry it's happening to you.

Fascinating blog post, I'm glad you decided to share it.

Show don't tell -- Move don't speak. Interesting concept.


TechnoBabe said...

Great advice to people watch to become more adept at writing about the way people interact.

Renae said...

I'm sorry about your current situation, but what a way to turn it around into somethign that helps your writing. Good for you. Great advice. I really hope your weeks get better.

mi said...

sorry to hear about the mess you have to deal with.
but phenomenal post!

i occasionally watch lie to me because i'm a sucker for tim roth.

laurel said...

Sorry you're dealing with so much garbagy behavior. :-( As Aubrie said, it may prove inspiration for your next villian.

Great reminder to be always alert to new ways of expressing emotion bodily.

Summer said...

Lie to Me is a pretty interesting show. I love Tim Roth, though, from his Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead days. :-)

Non-verbal cues is something I obsess over, and I obsess over my obsession with it. But in writing, for me at least, it's hard to describe every nuance without becoming overly descriptive.

Blah. That's one of my hang-ups...


Carolina Valdez Miller said...

Love the concept of listening with your eyes. So well put, Lola! I think it all sort of goes back to showing versus telling. Showing often feels more genuine, more sincere, because I think we humans trust the things people do over the things people say.

But I'm so sorry to hear of your personal issues right now! It sounds downright painful. I hope things clear up soon for you and that you find a way out of the mess.

Jon Paul said...

Lola--great post. Sorry about the personal issues--hope you get it all sorted out and can get back to the writing soon.

On your main point, I agree. The old adage "actions speak louder than words" works in fiction as well as reality. Loved you examples. As usual, world class stuff. :)

L. Diane Wolfe said...

That's why I love to people watch! It's not what they say, it's everything else.
Sorry you've got such a mess. Just stop picking up the phone. They'll leave a message!

Old Kitty said...

Oh dear! Sorry that you're having to deal with and unpleasant situation and people! Why they bother to deceive and lie to you - Ms Lola Sharp - Alpha She-Wolf - is beyond this wolfette's belief!

Good luck with sorting this mess imposed on you! Am sending you lots of howling at the moon!

Take care

Anonymous said...

I'm very sorry you have to deal with this whole mess. Hang in there! :(

Non-verbal communication is so much more important than verbal communication, at times, and can really change a scene.

Talli Roland said...

Aw, I'm so sorry to hear you're dealing with some horrible people. You sound so strong though; I'm sure you'll get through it completely intact. Thinking of you!

Carolyn V. said...

I hate when people try to be dishonest with me. I sorry you went through that.

I only watch a handful of shows, but Lie to Me is one of them. It's so interesting! =)

Alexandra Crocodile said...

You make an important point! I'm always careful to write the expression on faces, or how a character stands and the like. Great post!

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

So many times writers forget how important the non-verbal actions need to be written. Thanks for the wonderful reminder. I hope things calm down for you soon. Sounds awful.

Falen said...

ugh, sorry about the crapfest.

every time i catch lie to me, it's intriguing, but never enough to entice me to watch it regularly

Anonymous said...

I really dig this post and your blog. You are indeed a talented writer. I know what you mean about listening with your eyes . . . I often close my eyes and open them in my heart just so I can see more clearly as I write.
Love & Rockets

Jennie Bailey said...

Lola, while I'm sorry that you are having to deal with all of this, I love your ability to turn it into an useful writing lesson for all of us! I hope it resolves itself soon. There is nothing worse than dealing with slimey people who come out of the woodwork trying to mask their true intentions. I'd rather have someone be completely upfront about what they're after. They may be a cad, but at least they'd be an honest cad. It's emotionally draining having to try to cut through the crap. GREAT blog post out of a very messy, not-so-fun real life situation! Thanks for sharing.

Christi Goddard said...

I'm sorry to hear for your loss. I've got some ocean front property in Arizona I'd like to interest you in. Call me! :-)

Jemi Fraser said...

Yikes - I'm so sorry for everything you're going through right now. I can't even imagine how frustrating it all must be. Good luck dealing with the mess.

One of my teacherly strengths is reading body language without even being aware of it. The kids think it's kind of spooky :) I've been trying to become more aware of the nuances for my writing. It's fun!

Erica Mitchell-Spickard said...

Goo! Sorry for all that's happening :( I hate not being able to see the expression on someones face. Bothers me to no end. Great post, this is something I have been challenging myself to do with my characters. Body language is super important. I tend to pick this out when I am in beta mode and then I forget to do it in my own work. *blank face*

Kazzy said...

Non-verbal communication is hard enough to navigate when you are face to face with someone, but writing it must be tough.

So sorry about the family mess. Yuck!

Anonymous said...

I always say that people should pay attention to their own little mannerisms and movements as well as those of others in any given situation, and then apply that to their writing.

Fabulous post, and you've got equally fab taste in entertainment!

Neurotic Workaholic said...

That's a great idea to write down people's body language! In my revisions for my first novel, I realized that I had too much dialogue and not enough action. So I'm going to try out your strategy.

Anonymous said...

I must admit, I skipped through your post and when I got to the highlighted bit, I fell in love with your sense of things all over again. thanks. listen with your eyes. brilliant.

Clara said...

Awesome advice Lola!!!
And I really like Lie to me, I think its really interesting! Will definetly apply what I learn there on my MS.

What is the blog website for the Dr who inspired Lie to me? Im so curious!

Lola Sharp said...

Clara--it's on the Fox website, believe it or not.

I needed a picture & blurb for this post, so I googled Lie To Me, and of course it took me to the Fox website page for LTM. And there, on the sidebar is the info and links to the real Dr. and even some micro facial expressions and what they mean, etc. ;)

Everyone---THANKS for the kind words. :)

I appreciate your kindness.
I really wasn't pandering for any sympathy nor did I want to be too personal.

I was just trying to show the process by which , well, whatever, you get the point...
the importance of body language and facial expressions.

Vicki Rocho said...

Your mess reminds me of the difference between my husband and I dealing with telemarketers.

Me: (as soon as I know they're selling something) "No, I'm not interested. But thank you." CLICK

Hubby: No, I think I'm set, okay? (insert their next sales tactic), yeah, that sounds like a good deal, but I'm going to pass, okay? (another effort to sell) I'm sure it is amazing, but I'm really not interested, okay?

They'll keep him on the phone forever.

I hope you are able to hang up on your callers!

Tara said...

Itend to over-do the non-verbal stuff in my WiPs. I've taken a lot out on revisions. Hopefully I've found a little balance somehow!

Slamdunk said...

Sorry your dealing with that--greed makes turns people into scary folks.

I like your technique of people watching for non-verbal cues. I bet that must be quite the learning experience.

Watery Tart said...

I'm SO SORRY these hyenas are after you! I hope you can manage to make them go away VERY soon (or better, that you can manage to sue them and get their ill-gotten money away from them!) HA!

I've SEEN Lie to Me, and I was intrigued to--like you I watch almost no TV but was looking for something on Hulu and saw a clip and got sucked in--LOVE the premise.

Your EXAMPLES though, are devine. I think the non-verbal cues can be especially important when you have characters that lie--it's something that can make the reader feel cheated, unless there is SOME HINT that the character isn't telling the truth (or part of it).

KarenG said...

I love that show Lie to Me! The whole idea of people showing the truth through nonverbal cues is compelling, and yes essential for a writer to understand. And btw, hope you get all this other worked out. Sounds like a pretty good story there!

Susan Fields said...

I love watching the non-verbal communication in movies, and I do incorporate a lot of that in my writing. Especially eye contact, I find that fascinating! I'm so sorry you've got this mess going on right now, I hope it all gets cleared up soon.

Samantha Bennett said...

Love this post! Since I write in first-person, I really rely on non-verbal cues to show the feelings of my other characters.

DL Hammons said...

Another excellent post (except for all the personal drama your having to deal with). I've watched LIE TO ME from the first episode and find it fascinating. I strive for that type of subtlety in my writing, but its a hard nut to crack.

Here's hoping that the rough edges work themselves out and peace returns for you!

Melissa said...

First: Thank you for the kind comments on my blog. I hoped over to check out yours and what a pleasant surprise!

Nonverbal cues are so important, I like you, am a people watcher, I watch everything they do, and am very aware of my own movements because of it. I think this aids me a lot in my characterizations. And I love writing that plays on this subtlety.

I thought your examples were good, they showed very different characters. My favorite: "I'm wanted for murder." He'd put the frozen peas back in the freezer and was now looking in the cupboards. "You know how to make pancakes?".

I'm so sorry about these leeches festering into your life. I hope it all works out for you and they back off.

Cindy said...

I liked that last example, "flapping his arms". That made me smile.

I am usually pretty tuned into my character's non-verbal cues, BUT I have a terrible habit of using the same descriptions over and over again, especially with lips and eyes.

People watching definitely helps! By the way, thanks for visiting my blog :)

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry you have to deal with lunatics over the phone. Parasites love to come out of the wood works when a situation to their liking arises.

Great examples at the end, by the way.

Will Burke said...

That is one crazy-awful situation to be in, I can see how it made you a little crazy! Thanks for stopping by & following! Cheers!

Joanne said...

Body language, subliminal signs, the very essence of human nature is endlessly fascinating!

Palindrome said...

I'm sorry about all your personal crap. Boo on liars and schemers...in real life. Bring 'em on in fiction!!

I love looking at non-verbal cues and I especially love LIE TO ME. It started off pretty rough but it's a fantastic show now. And I have a soft spot for Tim Roth. Gawd, I love that accent. *sigh* What was my point? I have no idea.

I'm sorry I'm commenting so late...

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Lola Sharp
My name is Lola. (I'm not a showgirl) Yes, L-O-L-A Lola. It's the least of my worries. Let's move on, shall we? This blog is mostly about my misadventures on the journey to publication and beyond. My passion for lush prose, quirky characters, art, music, literature, performing arts and anything creative will be a major theme here. This journey of mine will not always be pretty. Much like rubbernecking a train wreck, I know sometimes you just can't help but look at the carnage that is often my life. So strap on your neck brace, helmet and 5-point harness and come along for the ride! Licentia poetica.
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