How to write silent communication? Humans communicate in a lot of different ways, often concurrently. While writing dialogue I frequently find myself interrupting the lines to add stuff like the following:

  • "there was an awkward silence between them"
  • "Patricia reached out for Devin"
  • "comprehension gleamed on his eyes" (A terrible line, indeed)

This kind of dialogue is not only sluggish and boring, it also frequently tells instead of showing.

What is the best way to communicate this kind of communication in an orderly, efficient and interesting fashion?

  • (Do you mean they tell instead of show?) I find these useful when I read, but that's me. Still, you can shorten them if you like. There was an awkward silence between them can be shortened to After an awkward silence xxx. Also, the expression "Aha" substitutes for the comprehension gleamed on his eyes. No?
    – SFWriter
    Commented Oct 16, 2017 at 15:09
  • @DPT thanks for the correction on showing and telling. I personally dislike "aha" because I tend to write more formal dialogue, but it IS a viable alternative. The problem with the sentences is not that they are long, but that I tend to use them very often. Thank for your time.
    – FFN
    Commented Oct 16, 2017 at 15:18

3 Answers 3


The lines should be interrupted. I open a random page in a best selling sci fi novel to find a dialogue, the author has whole paragraphs between utterances. Open Harry Potter to find a dialogue with Harry, Ron and Hermione, every utterance is accompanied by a description, and sometimes a few lines of describing physical actions.

Blocks of nothing but dialogue are generally not fully imagined scenes, people do not generally stand and talk to each other without moving, they move, have expressions, they think.

In real life, unless people are shouting over each other, every single time somebody says something, a listener has to process and understand whatever was said, this changes their mental state, they have a reaction of some sort from mild to severe, they formulate a response. The opposite happens in the other direction. If you provide NOTHING in-between lines of dialogue and leave all of that to the imagination of the reader, the reader will perceive these line as occurring too fast, and therefore being unrealistic. It is rushed, no matter what you do. This is WHY authors add "stage business" in-between speaking parts, so the reader has time to process whatever was said.

For unspoken communications, describe what people think and understand. Even from a single POV. Here is an "awkward silence":

For a moment she thought she must have heard him wrong, when Milly realized what Nick had said, she did not answer. She had no answer. She averted her eyes to the floor for a moment and felt embarrassed for him. When she thought of a response and looked up to give it, she realized Nick seemed embarrassed for himself. She held her tongue. Should she let him speak, or just walk away?

It may not fit your story, that isn't the point: An "awkward silence" is awkward for some reason, it means it isn't easy to formulate a response and both parties know it. It usually involves something embarrassing or shocking that focuses the attention of the listener on something else, or makes them want to answer with anger or scolding or insult that isn't appropriate for the setting. What makes it awkward, or difficult to navigate? What are the feelings involved?

As for "comprehension":

Karen grew excited. "No, dummy, it's the opposite!" Nick's brow knitted in confusion. She said, "He cut his own brake line! Get it?"

Before her eyes, Nick's knitted brow relaxed, his confusion evaporated and transformed into astonishment. "Oh my GOD!" he whispered. "Of course! Why didn't I think of that?"

And so on. What are they thinking? Why? What are they remembering that prompts their realizations?

Patricia reached out for Devin.

Why? Did she feel pity and an urge to comfort him? Was it love and a need for physical closeness? Lust and an urge to feel his body against hers? Grief that he felt so distant and a plea for him to return to her?

Some internal state in Patricia causes her at that moment to reach out and try to connect, and you are leaving it to the reader's imagination precisely what kind of connection is sought. It does not have to be said in dialogue, our speech seldom contains much of our internal feelings and urges.

If it is not perfectly clear in the context of the story, then it should be described. If it is perfectly clear in the context, there is nothing wrong with it, the reader understands the physical reaction and sees nothing wrong with it. Either it was described earlier in the context, or it needs to be described now: What emotion is strong enough to provoke this physical action and make it an emotionally plausible action?

  • Why the downvote? This is a good point that is oft repeated. Dialogue does not occur in a vacuum.
    – user18397
    Commented Oct 18, 2017 at 1:50

For this kind of communication, what I do is think of a story very much the way I would watch a movie.

If you break down a movie, you have two main ways that things are being communicated to the viewer (there are many, but these are the primary two). Visually, and via dialogue.

Visual communication is the most powerful, and it can be wonderfully ambiguous, touching, and makes people feel like they can relate to the characters. Obviously, this is the strength of a movie over a book. A huge amount can be communicated by a five second shot of an actor's face as they react to something with no dialogue at all. Writing that into a book is very challenging. Dialogue is basically the same for a novel or a movie. It should be snappy, sound realistic, not too stilted or formal, and not take too long. Also, dialogue should never be used to explain background that can be explained in some other way.

Now, visual communication is nothing more or less than describing what characters are doing. I myself like to think of the way I handle this in a novel as the "Stanley Kubrik school". I give dialogue, I tersely describe some actions, and I move on. I try to keep this very minimalist but hit what needs to be hit. For example, I would never write something like "Comprehension gleamed in his eyes." I may say that his eyes gleamed, or that he nodded, or perhaps that he pursed his lips or frowned in thought. I would never just state that the character had achieved comprehension. I leave that assumption to the reader. The character may or may not comprehend. You get some cues which are similar to what you would get from a movie, and you can assume or not assume that the character understood. This makes the reader think a little bit and involves them in the story more. Ambiguity can be your friend.

Nonverbal communication should be kept very short and used sparsely or it will start to feel stilted. Describe simple, physical actions. If you don't know what to have the characters do, observe people. Watch people's body language as they talk, pay close attention to what they do and describe that in as few words as possible. I believe that 90% of good writing is observation.

To hit your other examples: "Patricia reached out for Devin" is fine depending on context. "There was an awkward silence between them" is very redundant. Just say "No one spoke for a moment." Or "There was a silence." Let the reader decide if that was awkward or not based on context. Don't say "between them" because you have already established a scene where two characters are in a conversation and you do not need to reestablish that. We know who is involved if we have read the preceding paragraph.

This is all about showing not telling. Simply describe physical actions and let the reader put together the picture the way we are all naturally trained to do from birth.


"Haku took a sharp intake of air when he heard the second voice at the other side of the door, even though it was mostly inaudible. He shouted his father’s name and sprinted towards the sound, gripping the metal door handle with such ferocity that it came loose. The door flung open to reveal a flabbergasted Greyson. The man’s face softened at the sight of his only son and he shed tears of happiness, lifting his hand to cover his wide smile.

Haku flung himself forward into the strong arms of his awaiting father. Greyson held a strong grip to his son as they embraced after being apart for over two years, the emotions building up inside of them. Tears welled up to the brim of Haku’s eyes, threatening to spill.

Someone from behind Greyson cleared their throat, grabbing the attention of the father and son. Greyson sniffed and held Haku at arm’s length, eyes glazed over with tears of happiness, and a bright smile on his face."

This is some of the stuff I wrote, when a son and father finally got reunited after 2 years of being separated. There are no spoken words, yet everything is displayed as if words were spilling out of there hearts.

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