Character to Character Interaction: Dialogue and Body Language

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 You have your setting. You have your plot. You have your characters…

Now what?

Now you have to let them interact. The most obvious interactions are character to character, but all three have to mix to create the conflict and resolution of your narrative.

Character to Character Interaction: Dialogue and body language

The most obvious of character to character interactions is dialogue. The biggest problem with dialogue is that – in real life – a great deal of our communication is unspoken, because human beings have a sophisticated system of displaying emotions and complicates this with gestures and body posture and other nonverbal cues. This is hard to translate onto the page, and only partially because we don’t really notice a lot of this communication on a conscious level.

There are five main functions of nonverbal communication in human beings:

  • To express complex emotions
  • To express information about events and attitudes
  • For emphasis during speech
  • Presentation of personality
  • Social rituals

For example, when most people say ‘hello’, they also do an eyebrow flash, where they rapidly raise their eyebrows and drop them again. You don’t notice when you doing it, and you generally don’t notice the other person doing it (but I’m predicting you will now notice it for the next day or so). It is when someone doesn’t do the eyebrow flash that you notice something awry. You sense that they may be aggressive or disinterested. Now, how do you convey that gesture – or the lack of it – onto the page?

As well, so much of a conversation is conveyed by grunts and sounds. Most of us know about ‘hmmm’, ‘um’ and ‘er’, but there a dozens of more sounds in a normal conversation, ‘duh’, ‘uh-huh’, ‘gah’, ‘tsk’, yawning, gasping, sighing, moaning, hissing through your teeth, and I could go on and on. How much of this do you include in your text? And if you added in all the incomplete sentences that people make, your dialogue would end up too patching and boring to follow.

The proximity of communicating characters is important. If two people conversing are close enough to touch, this sends a different message than if they were on the opposite sides of a table, and again if they were on the opposite sides of the room! Their positions and postures might give you a bigger hint as to what is happening. If they are nose to nose and looking deep into each other eyes, with relaxed postures and caressing gestures being exchanged, you can make the assumption they are in love (or plotting murder).

This is a lot of information to convey in your narrative. You have to pick those aspects that convey the clearest picture of what is happening, as well as design your dialogue to sound like speech without actually mimicking real speech patterns. Look at the image provided, showing a very complex interaction between Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. As an exercise: how would you convey that information just by text?

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4 Comments

Filed under Characterization, Dialogue, Steampunk

4 responses to “Character to Character Interaction: Dialogue and Body Language

  1. Oh now this is interesting when you separate the process out like that. I read a lot of folks’ short stories online and they seem to be able to convey a lot of this stuff perhaps without consciously thinking about it. At least the best ones do and I realize now that is a great part of what makes them so good.
    Also having watched a really bad actor once I tried to break down why he was so bad and say Denzel Washington or Dustin Hoffman was so good. I noticed that it was a lot to do with some of the things you have pointed out here for writing text. Those subconscious things we do like rubbing our noses or picking at a scab mid conversation, unfinished and broken sentences, playing with a paper clip on the desk while we think, reacting (with or without eyebrow flashes!) to our opposite number rather than standing there stiffly waiting to deliver our next line like the bad actors or badly written characters do.

    • I am always trying to consciously make my writing better. So I try to breakdown my own narratives to see what is working and what isn’t. I noticed I was doing lot of dialogue without including the gestures and actions that make a dialogue come to life. I don’t want my character to be puppets, but to live and breathe, and become ‘good actors’. “)

  2. Reblogged this on Cogpunk Steamscribe and commented:

    This meshes well with the current blog post on dialogue.

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