Don’t Speak

Out of all of my writing skills, I think I excel at dialogue. How people communicate naturally and effectively is something I can convey well in my writing. Even as I type this out, I feel kind of like an asshole for patting myself on the back. However, I’m trying to get better at admitting my strengths and weaknesses without feeling egotistical or shitty.

It’s a skill I’m trying to hone. There’s nothing wrong with saying: “I do <this> well.” And there’s no shame in admitting: “I need to do <this> better.” It’s a skill every person should have and use. It’s the only way we can lean into our strengths and work on our weaknesses, right?

Regardless, my strength at writing dialogue has not been much help recently.

I’m currently in the final rewrites and edits of my next book, and the two MCs don’t actually talk to each other much. Most of their communication is done without talking. As you can imagine, that’s a bit of a challenge for any author, but it’s particularly arduous for an author who feels that dialogue is one of their strengths.

So, what does an author do when they have to convey communication between two characters if they can’t rely on direct dialogue between the two?

The first thing I had to do was unlearn all of my writing skills I had as far as making two characters interact was concerned. I couldn’t have two characters speak directly to each other? Okay. Then, that’s a skill I need to push to the back of my brain when those two characters share a scene.

Then what???

It took some time, but I realized that I need to pay attention to non-verbal cues when interacting with others, or watching two people interact. If someone became angry during a conversation, how did their body show it? What did their face do? Did each person react to the body language of the other person?

Even though watching two other people interact–and paying attention while I was interacting with others–there was talking (or dialogue), so it’s not quite like the scenario in my book, clearly. However, if I ignored what was being said, I could focus on what was going on physically with the participants in a conversation.

How do two people physically address and respond to each other when meeting up for a romantic evening at a restaurant? Seeing each other for the first time in a long time at the airport? Greeting each other for a chat over coffee at the coffee shop? Run into each other on the street by chance outside of a store?

There are a million and one different ways that people’s bodies and faces respond to someone they like, love, or don’t like or love. It’s clearly obvious from watching a person’s body language if they are around someone they despise.

Since I couldn’t use dialogue to convey these things in the book, I had to rely on descriptions of body language. And that was what I needed to study and familiarize myself with while writing.

After this book, it’s unlikely I’ll have another scenario where characters can’t speak directly to each other–at least none that I can foresee–but this exercise and education will not be a one-off. Even for authors writing normal dialogue, learning to describe a character’s body language is an invaluable skill.

We’ve all heard “Show. Don’t tell.” so much when it comes to writing our stories, right?

Well, challenge yourself to not have a character say: “I’m angry!

Show me that they’re angry. Are they clenching their teeth? Tightening their jaw? Balling their fists at their side? Is their face turning red or their mouth twisting up churlishly?

In my opinion, great dialogue makes a book worth reading. However, it has to be broken up by narrative and description. A book of just dialogue is, well, a script. It’s meant to be used to put on a play, or make a television show or movie. The people who see it will not need to use their imagination as much.

With novels, we have to help immerse readers in our worlds. Help them to understand the characters inside and out. Sure, forcing the reader to use their imagination is important as well–we don’t want to give them everything. However, it’s hard for someone to care about a world or its inhabitants if they don’t feel connected to it. The physicality of the characters and what is going on around them does a lot of the work.

So, tell your characters: “Don’t speak.” At least sometimes. Let your narrative and descriptive passages–your showing–drag the reader into your world.

If nothing else, it will help you become a better writer. However, it might even help you become a better communicator in real life, too.

Tremendous Love & Thanks,