1

So much of communication is nonverbal - facial expressions, body language. Often, it's entirely clear what somebody is thinking and conveying even if they aren't saying a word.

How can I portray this in fiction?

These can be such powerful moments (and, in TV and film, often are). But all the "easy options" I know seem to resort to telling the message instead of showing the emotion:

  • Literally convert the nonverbal message into a verbal one:

    The expression on her face said "Get out now."

  • Describe the nonverbal action in a way that just spells the emotion and message out for the reader:

    She didn't say anything, only gazed at me pleadingly.

  • Use established cliches that we already have strong associations for, and know precisely what they're meant to convey:

    "Do you want to--" I began, but Maria was already rolling her eyes at me.

    or

    Just like every time Corrington dropped by to visit, Nate was grinding his teeth.

These are fine some of the time. But there are times when I want to have wordless communication, and to do it well, vividly, engrossing the reader in the moment and not resorting to telling.

How can I do that?

  • Her gaze drifted over my left shoulder; suddenly, her eyes snapped open, and her pupils shrank to pinpricks. After a moment of a complete stillness, her eyes rolled ever so slowly towards the door to the right, and the incline of her head followed, like the ballast of a ship adjusting with the barrels rolling in its hold. Doggerel, but you get the gist. Describe only the observable physical actions and configurations, but make the message unmistakeable. – Dan Bron Jul 26 '16 at 12:40
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If you have a (first or third person) limited perspective, you could show the POV character's emotional state through the descriptive details she considers noteworthy.

Perhaps one of the most brilliantly executed examples I can recall for this would be the (French) poem "Déjeuner du matin" by Jacques Prévert. It begins:

He poured the coffee
Into the cup
He put the milk
Into the cup of coffee
He put the sugar
Into the coffee with milk
With a small spoon
He churned
He drank the coffee
And he put down the cup
Without any word to me

We know that the unnamed "he" is important to our POV character because of the detailed focus she holds on his actions. And while we do not know why, we know she is separated from him through his inactions, neither looking at her nor speaking to her.

There is not a single line of dialogue, but we feel her pain. And at the end, yes, she cries, which may be cliché, but by that point you're ready to cry with her.

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You tell it. Show vs tell has become a monster that is twisting fiction out of any recognizable shape. While it is often good advice for particular passages, telling is a fundamental part of the novelist's art. It it the great privilege we have over the movies. As E. M. Forster pointed out, it is what allows us to show those things that go on in the head that are not reflected in action. These are very important human things. Sometimes we feel deeply but show nothing. Movies cannot portray this very important human characteristic. It leads to a certain shallowness in movies: they are all surface.

"Show vs tell" originated as advice to novelists trying to write screenplays. Movies are a visual medium and therefore the story must be carried by the visuals, by what is shown. The novel is a verbal medium. The story can and often should be carried by what is told. A novelist trying to write a screenplay needs to find a different way of telling a story. But the novelist trying to write a novel is not bound by any such restrictions. And the novelist lacks so many of the visual and auditory tools that the movie maker has, that if they give up their own tools and attempt to emulate movie storytelling without any of the movie directory's tools, they are going to be in trouble.

Remember that the author of a movie is not the screenwriter but the director. In the novel, it is the writer who gets to sit in the big chair. A novelist should master and use the tools of their own trade: storytelling with words.

  • I'm no acolyte of "show, don't tell," but it's important to know which is which. Sometimes, you want to show, and that's specifically what I'm asking for in the question. (And I absolutely disagree about "show vs. tell" being screenplay advice. "Showing" isn't about visuals, it's about conveying by demonstration, instead of baldly providing the reader with explicit information.) – Standback Jul 27 '16 at 7:03
  • But you would not have asked the question if there was a natural way to do what you want. You have clearly thought through your options. You understand how this is done in fiction. You are reaching for a tool that is not in the tool box. And if showing is not about visuals, why choose the word "show"? People have been struggling to figure out what show don't tell means in a prose context since the phrase was adopted. How do you demonstrate, in prose, except by providing explicit information? It amounts to saying, be oblique not direct. But you can't be oblique all the time. – Mark Baker Jul 27 '16 at 11:20
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Hmm, seems to me that you've summarized the options pretty well:

(a) You can describe the physical action and rely on the reader to understand what it means. "She stared at me and frowned."

(b) You can have the narrator explain the meaning. "'Hey George, it's 5:00, workday is over', I said. And he looked at me, and I could tell by the look in his eyes that he wanted to go to Harry's Donut Shop and order a Boston creme donut and a cup of coffee with hazelnut creamer, and sip it slowly while he read a novel, probably that new novel by Tom Clancy. But it was clear from the set of his jaw that he knew he couldn't, and that he'd have to go straight home, where his wife would probably tell him that the dishwasher was broken again and he'd have to fix it." (Well, okay, maybe you can't tell THAT much from non-verbal communication.)

(c) You can clarify the meaning of a non-verbal communication by other character's reactions. Like, "Sally stared at George. 'Hey,' George said, 'I'm sorry. I didn't realize it would make you this angry.'" Now we know it's an angry stare and not a puzzled stare, etc.

Beyond that, I'm not sure what other options there are. You either have the narrator explain, have a character explain it, or no one explains it and it's up to the reader to figure it out. I don't think there's some other magic solution.

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"The thousand yard stare. I was standing right in front of him but I might as well have an oak."

In other words tell the story from your point of view(1st person) thus "saying" nothing but what is on people's minds.

Can be used to great effect when words are in fact spoken. (Drama)

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