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Writing nonverbal cues to enrich your characters’ lives

I just finished a fantastic online class with Margie Lawson called, “Writing Body Language and Dialogue Cues Like a Psychologist.” I highly recommend any of Margie’s classes–they’re like taking a Ph.D level course in how to empower your character’s emotions with tons of hands-on practice.

One of the tools she shared at the end of class is The Center for Nonverbal Studies. It’s a fabulous site that includes a nonverbal dictionary, a page on the nonverbal brain, and even an in-depth explanation of the “adam’s apple jump,” which, according to the site, is “an unconscious sign of emotional anxiety, embarrassment, or stress. At a business meeting, e.g., a listener’s Adam’s apple may inadvertently jump should he or she dislike or strongly disagree with a speaker’s suggestion, perspective, or point of view.”

The nonverbal dictionary lists gestures, signs, and body language cues. I’m reading through the lists and making notes of anything that catches my interest or that I can see one of my character’s doing. For example, under “Jaw-Droop” I found this usage explanation:

The jaw-droop is a reliable sign of surprisepuzzlement, or uncertainty. The expression is often seen in adults and children who a. have lost their way (e.g., in airports), or b. are entering or walking through unfamiliar, crowded, or potentially threatening places (e.g., darkened restaurants, taverns, and bars).

You’ll even find a bit of history in the nonverbal dictionary. Under Lawn Display: “Lawns mark territory and betoken status. Each year, Americans buy an estimated 500,000 plastic pink flamingo ornaments to mark their yard space–and to provide tangible evidence that, “This land is mine.”

You’ll find notes on the evolution of lawn display, its verbal pre-history, and the interior design aspects of lawn display.

You’ll even find neuro-notes on lawn display: 

Like the cylindrical, filamentous projections covering our scalp, we respond to grass blades as we do to our own hair. The compulsion to feed, clip, and groom our yard space is prompted by the same preadapted modules of the mammalian brain, which motivate personal grooming and hair care (see CINGULATE GYRUS). Like thick, healthy locks, well-groomed lawns bespeak health, vigor, and high status.

Wow. I never knew there was so much psychology wrapped up in how we tend our lawns and the space around our homes. But it makes sense. I love plants and flowers and natural displays in my yard, but a few years ago, when I was going through a personal transformative crisis, I paid no attention to my yard–it was as wild and overgrown and neglected as my inner space felt at the time.

Do you have a character whose “lawn display” reflects their inner domain? Does one character have a yard full of pink flamingos, while another leaves their Christmas decorations up all year? What does their outer space say about their inner space?

To get the most out of the nonverbal dictionary, I highly recommend checking out any of Margie’s classes. This is the kind of stuff you wish your MFA program taught.

To read more about how to show body language on the page, read my earlier post here.



3 Comments Post a comment
  1. What a fascinating insight! Thanks for sharing it. I’ll look more closely at people today (and lawns 😉 )

    April 4, 2014
  2. Reblogged this on The Writing Duo.

    April 4, 2014
  3. What a great resource – thanks for sharing.

    It’s a funny thing how much some of us rely on instinct when writing body language. We would never do it with the words our characters speak, which we weigh carefully and precisely, but the moment we step away from the world of pure words we start flailing – or at least I do! Definitely going to spend some time with that website trying to mend my ways.

    April 5, 2014

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