Have you happened across two cats sitting together—maybe facing each other, maybe just side on—and had the feeling you intruded on a private conversation? There is something about their posture, as if they had just broken off mid-sentence or are purposely ignoring one another. Either way, there is an overwhelming sense they are communicating, yet they haven’t uttered a sound. People do this too. We tend not to stay silent for very long, though.
You know that saying: nature abhors a vacuum? One of my favourite applications of this is in the mystery/thriller/detective novel when the interviewer provides enough space for the interviewee to feel compelled to fill the silence. Generally, a clue or confession drops into the resulting babble. But just as important is that moment of quiet. We communicate a lot without words. I’m not crafting any new theories, here. Body language is a well explored field. When it comes to writing fiction, however, it’s often difficult to know how much to include.
Dialogue is important in a story, if not only to break up great chunks of telling. A reader doesn’t want to sit in on story time, they want to feel they are a part of the novel and dialogue helps with that. Dialogue tends to read faster, particularly when it’s well done. But just as too little dialogue can slow down a story, too much can be distracting. I don’t know if that’s a personal preference? I’m not an expert on the art of writing, but I read a lot, and I have opinions about what I read. If a conversation goes on for too long, or edges toward an exchange of banter that might be fun for half a page, but is still dragging on two pages later, I get bored. I tune out. I want to know what’s up next.
Sometimes a conversation has to be meander, though. One character isn’t ready to talk, but the other is. Or we have that interviewer/interviewee situation where it’s time for facts to be laid out, or not. This is when body language becomes important. But as
one of all of my editors keep telling me, less is more. A shrug can be really telling when used at the right moment, but if the subject has been shrugging all through the scene, it means nothing. He or she is just a shrugger. It could be a nervous twitch, but too many repetitive gestures can be distracting.
So how do we write an effective scene that includes believable pauses, gestures and dialogue? Practice. I haven’t mastered it yet, but I recognize a good scene when I’m reading. Of course, readers all have different attention spans, so what works for me might not work for you. But there is a middle ground. A scene that generally works. I find reading my own scenes aloud helps me gauge the pace and authenticity of the dialogue versus gestures. Of course, my ear is generally attuned to what I want to hear—what I want to get out of a scene, so even that method isn’t perfect.
Body language is deceptively difficult to write. Ever sat down and tried to put into words two cats sitting side by side not talking? I have, and I found myself relying on a lot of cat clichés, or generally accepted knowledge about cats to communicate the scene. It wasn’t until I stripped away what the reader might expect to see and started to put down words describing what I saw that the magic started to happen. The exercise reminded me of one of my first art classes. For six months we used only pencil, charcoal and black ink. For half a year, we interpreted the world in varying shades of grey.
Okay, time for me to get back to stripping all the excess nods and grunts from my current WIP—and trying to replace them with something more subtle, less stock, if they need replacing at all. If you have an exercise, or some insight regarding writing authentic body language, please share!
Featured image is from tumblr. I was unable to track down the original source. I love the idea these two cats are planning a caper, however!