10 Dialogue tips: What We Don’t Say

10 Dialogue tips: What We Don’t Say

According to Paulette Gillig, nonverbal signals make up 60-65% of our daily communication. That’s more than half, my fellow symbol jotters. Most of these nonverbal signals are unconscious, meaning that we don’t think about them, and aren’t always aware we’re conveying them.

In writing, we often hear “show, don’t tell” and body language (aka, nonverbal signals) are one of the best ways to do that. Though you can certainly revise, plan what your character’s nonverbal skills are when creating them.

Take a look at your current work-in-progress. I just did, and holy moly, the amount of “sighed” and “smiled” and “raised an eyebrow” was enough to make me cringe. (Cringing was also overused.) Do you find you overuse your own go-to’s, as well? Let’s dig into nonverbal communication so we can make our writing more authentic.


Photo by James Douglas

When writing nonverbal signals, we have to remember context. In real life, you wouldn’t assume someone is lying because they can’t meet your eyes. You have to look at the bigger picture because there are many of reasons that someone wouldn’t meet your eyes while speaking, though lying is one of them.

Context to consider:

  • Environment- where is the character and who is the character around?
  • Usual demeanor- how does this character typically behave?
  • Nonverbal communication of others present- how is this character picking up on others around them?

The Magic Number 10

  • Facial expressions
  • Microexpressions
  • Gestures
  • Paralinguistics
  • Posture
  • Proxemics
  • Eye Gaze
  • Haptics
  • Appearance
  • Artifacts

Facial Expressions

We all know basic facial expressions and can usually read them quite easily. We can tell when a person is happy, sad, mad, or bored based on how their faces are contorted.


Microexpressions are voluntary and involuntary emotional responses that often occur simultaneously and conflict with each other. The amygdala processes stimuli and then the person quickly tries to hide the reaction. Think of someone flinching and then straightening their shoulders to show they aren’t phased.


Photo by Hannah Busing

Gestures are cultural, but they are some of the clearest ways for us to decode how a person is feeling. Be sure when using gestures, they are true to your character’s culture. For example, some Native Americans will not use finger pointing to draw attention to someone else. It’s rude.


Paralinguistics refer to vocal communication. Think tone of voice, pitch, inflection, and loudness. Someone saying “I love you” for the first time will be different than if those same words are said in desperation to keep a relationship going.


Photo by Alexandre Lecocq

Open posture indicates friendliness, whereas closed posture indicates hostility or anxiety. Posture tells us a lot about how a person is feeling as well as can indicate a demeanor. Think military style.


Photo by Priscilla Du Preez

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall discovered meaning behind the distance between people as they interact. Four levels to be exact.

  • Intimate distance— 6 to 18 inches
  • Personal distance— 1.5 to 4 feet
  • Social distance— 4 to 12 feet
  • Public distance— 12 to 25 feet

Imagine that a couple dating are close, touching, but around the possibly-someday in-laws, there are at least 4 feet between them. (Note: this will differ in cultures so do your research if needed)

Eye Gaze

Excuse me for this cliche, but the eyes are the window into the soul. Cool, you say, but no one really ever explained how. Fear not, I’m going to remedy that!

Imagine you’re in a conversation, and the other person makes eye contact. Naturally, you assume the person is interested in what you have to say. Too much eye contact, and you may feel this person is a bit intimidating. What kind of monster stares at you for so long?!

Or the other person looks away. Are they even listening? What else has their attention? Are they uncomfortable or trying to hide how they really feel?

Blinking incessantly is another tricky one. Or, for that matter, not blinking enough. Uncomfortable people tend to blink more, where people who are trying to control their eye movements blink less. (Think poker face.)

Pupil size can actually convey attraction or interest. Next time you’re flirting, pay attention to their growing pupils.


Haptics is communication via touch. This is another one of those culture-sensitive things. Think someone who is offering sympathy. They might reach out to lay their hand over someone else’s or hug them. People also use haptics as displays of aggression. Someone in a fight might shove another person to get them to back off.


Believe it or not, there is such a thing as color psychology. Research shows that what a person wears not only says something about their personality but also can affect someone else’s mood. I like to wear blue because it makes me feel calm, but it also has the same effect on others. People also experience synesthesia (one sense is simultaneously perceived as if by one or more additional senses. Think Taste the Rainbow.)

This brings me to a book I thoroughly enjoyed reading by Dr. Joel Salinas called Mirror Touch.


This fits into appearance, but also includes images since we are in an ever-growing digital world. Notice my header picture is of a feather and this blog is about writing. Doctors wear scrubs. Police Officers wear uniforms. All these artifacts tell us something nonverbal about the person connected to them.

There you have it, fellow symbol jotters. Take these 10 nonverbal signals into account when writing dialogue. Remember, conflict is plot. Don’t be afraid to rely on all the things we don’t say.

Take a look at the other character building posts in the series.

Characters: How Beliefs Shape Reality

Characters: The Lie They Believe

Characters: Getting in their head: Part One

Fun reads and research

Nonverbal Communication in Psychotherapy

Understanding Body Language and Facial Expressions

Types of Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication speaks volumes

Nonverbal Communication


Non-Verbal Communication in Writing

Cheat Sheets For Writing Body Language

What are some of your go-to nonverbal signals? Leave a comment below!

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