Some of the hardest things to convey in writing are body language and facial expressions. And yet, these are the cues by which we, as human beings, rely on more than almost anything else to give context to spoken words. If you don’t believe me, visit the nearest forum and look at the number of flame wars that have started because Person B thought that Person A was being sarcastic (or didn’t realize Person A was being sarcastic, as the case may be) when Person A didn’t mean to be at all.
One thing we are told over and over in school about writing is, “show, don’t tell.” And yet, if, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” how do we show, rather than tell, how a character is feeling? Sure, big flashy obvious things like punching someone else tend to come with their own subtle clues (hint: if Joe is punching you, he’s probably not giddy), but for most normal conversations we have to rely on small bits of exposition to convey emotional and other nonverbal cues.
There are hundreds of other nonverbal cues that we pick up from every encounter with another person. Often, these are things that we don’t even realize are there. For example, watch an action movie sometime. Observe how, when the main character is supposed to be doing something Heroic, the camera will shoot him or her from below, making him or her appear taller. This creates the illusion of even greater physical impressiveness, making the MC seem even more heroic than their actions, taken by themselves, would convey. Imagine the same scene where the Hero does something really cool, and try to imagine if the camera were further away, and high above them. They would seem small, insignificant rather than mighty and impressive.
And okay, that was an easy one. How about this: why do most politicians wear navy blue suits? It turns out, there is a reason for that. The business suit itself is designed to create the image of a more physically imposing (and thus in the subconscious, more powerful, more dominant) person. The color navy is chosen because of the psychological effects it has on the viewer also: dark colors invoke the idea of ‘seriousness,’ but black is ‘too morbid.’ Navy is a nice compromise, and is the reason that almost every winning politician in the last 60 years has worn it.
Enter the Center for Non-Verbal Studies. The CNS is, as the name implies, a private, nonprofit center for the study of non-verbal communication. They delve into the psychology of every form of non-verbal communication, from body language and facial expressions, to fashion and architecture.
One of the sections of the site above is called the Nonverbal Dictionary, an invaluable resource for writers wishing to convey character’s inner thoughts and emotions without actually stating them in a narrative exposition. Or perhaps you want to describe a villain’s lair in terms that convey the sheer might of the badguy organization without just saying, “The place intimidated the heck out of Our Hero.” Also, the sheer amount of information presented on the site makes for fascinating reading in its own right.
This is good stuff to know. So swing by the CNS and dive right in. You’ll be impressed with what you didn’t know, or that you knew but couldn’t put words to, about the ways we communicate without words.