Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Die in Active Dialogue

Can We Talk?

Dialogue is far more than words inside quotation marks…

by Rob Walker

What’s just as important as what your character says? What do you need concern yourself with as you craft dialogue other than just the dialogue? Let’s start with the face.

Whose face? Why the face of the speaker and the features of the other speaker as dialogue means two logues, not one. Facial expressions and features are a starting point. Squints, ticks, licking of lips – it all becomes part and parcel of how it all comes off the page like life itself or remains on the page like a dead, dehydrated piece of road kill.

In other words, now that we know so much about non-verbal communication, it is incumbent upon us writers to think of using three non-verbal “triangulations” just as we would triangulate at least three of the five senses in a scene.

In a dialogue scene eye contact is huge, facial expressions, big, sounds, sighs, rolling eyes, as well as gestures and even how a character sits, legs crossed or not, and how he stands, firm or shaky. Posture and proximity. These are all key to making dialogue action rather than feeling like inaction.
So what does science tell us about body language? Here is a pretty good list of items that I use as I write:

Non-verbal signs of Cooperation:

Standing with feet apart, head tilted high.

Direct eye-contact

Uncrossed legs and arms

Open arms and palms out

Finger to face (as opposed to hand covering face)


Hand covering mouth or shading eyes

Head down

Throat clearing

Need for reassurance:

Sucking on pen, pencil, glasses or other item

Clenched hands

Cuticle picking, biting nails

Hand to throat


Hands in pockets

Hands locked at back

Hand rubbing back of neck

Body twisted away

Stalling for time by cleaning glasses, pipe, rearranging, etc.


Hand to cheek

Chin stroking

Leaning forward

Scratching head



Hand over nose

Brow furrowed


Nail biting

Strained voice

Rapid eye movements

Open Gestures:


Eye contact

Affirmative head nods

Rubbing hands together

Interim phrases of agreement or acknowledgement (Eh? Uh-huh? Hmmm, oh, etc.)

Closed Gestures:


Leaning back (as opposed to forward)

Hand covering mouth

Peering over top of glasses

Crossed legs, arms

Head down

In other words, it is as important to see/hear what a character says but just as important to see and hear what is going on between the spoken lines, alternating with interesting actions the character is involved in and engaged in. This keeps the dialogue interwoven with the action, and the action engaged while speakers speak. Action should not end when a character opens her mouth. Same as with thinking; we are in real life normally involved in multi-tasking as we are thinking, no? Same as when speaking. Your dialogue needs to walk; your dialogue requires legs. When the man says, “Lights, action, camera” include in that list “dialogue” but dial it UP!

My latest madness is found via google at Dirty Deeds – Advice where you can keep tabs on the work in progress – Curse of the Titanic, or google Write Aide, or check out his blogs at

Do leave your comments!



Terry Odell said...

Good points, Rob. And there's also the sub-text of dialogue. Is the character saying something but meaning something else?

Norman Wilson said...

You nailed it, Rob. Often we get too wrapped up in "he said", "she said" dialogue and forget there is a whole world of nonverbal communication.

Kaye George said...

I've meant to start my own lists for some time and it's time to do it. I think it's good to keep track of which gestures specific characters use, too. Great post!

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

As always, lots of great ideas.


Morgan Mandel said...

I'll have to print out your list and keep in handy!

My dog, Rascal, can't hear, so she relies a lot on non-verbal communication and body language. It works for her.

Morgan Mandel