Non Verbal Leakage
Training our characters to alert readers to their inner feelings
It’s often been said that in good writing, readers should be given enough clues to work out a character’s state of mind, without being explicitly told how they are feeling. So rather than state someone is nervous, it is better to see them biting their nails, or fiddling with hair, or wiping their sweaty palms down their trousers. This is especially effective when their words may be saying something different to their actions: eg. ‘I’m not at all worried,’ he said, drumming his fingers on the table.
Wikipedia defines it thus: Non-verbal leakage is a form of non-verbal behaviour that occurs when a person verbalises one thing, but their body language indicates another, common forms of which include facial movements and hand-to-face gestures.
Although he would have been unfamiliar with the term, William Shakespeare knew all about non-verbal leakage. In the last scene of ‘Othello,’ Othello has convinced himself he must murder his wife Desdemona, having been falsely convinced by wicked Iago that she has been unfaithful to him. (Sorry for the spoiler!) He commands her to pray and confess any unacknowledged sin. His words sound confident, but Desdemona is watching his body language. She asks him why his eyes ‘roll so;’ why he gnaws at his ‘nether [lower] lip’ and comments on the ‘bloody passion’ that is shaking his ‘very frame.’ Despite the calmness of his words, Othello is clearly deeply distressed and it is this non verbal leakage that alarms Desdemona more than what he actually says.
If a reader has to work a bit harder to discern how our characters are really feeling, they actually enjoy it and become more invested in our writing as a result.
The Emotion Thesaurus, by Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman is a brilliant resource for writers, supplying non verbal leakage examples for a variety of mental states. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
So next time we describe our characters’ inner feelings, let’s make our readers work a little harder: I’m sure they’ll thank us for it!