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Non-Verbal Communication and Backstory

My last post discussed nonverbal communication (gestures, expressions, posture) as a means of making scenes stronger, less repetitive, and more immediate. This blog will explore how non-verbal communication provides a means of incorporating backstory seamlessly and integrally into a work of fiction.

Backstory–where the characters have come from, what they have experienced, how they have successfully or unsuccessfully reacted to their past context–is an essential, critical, and desperately difficult element of successful storytelling. Done poorly—in ‘data dumps’, tell-all prologues, or extensive and jarring flashbacks–it pulls the reader backwards, out of the motion of the story and into a closed off past. Done well—integrated into the story–it pulls the past forward, providing clues to the way a character’s past experiences and disappointments influence present choices, actions, and mistakes.

How to integrate backstory into the story present is neither obvious nor easy. There are many writerly devices to do so—through direct communication (characters discussing the past, a character’s internal self-examination, or a narrator’s overview); through discovered records (letters, diaries, photographs), through story consequences from past actions (scars, physical injuries, institutionalization). Many of these devices require a good deal of finesse to make them a believable part of the story rather than a ‘plant.’ Would those characters really have had that conversation about the past? How convenient that the letter explaining everything was found within two pages of the conclusion. Readers are smart, and any time these writerly devices start to feel like authorial manipulation—a lazy means of communicating story information–rather than an integral part of the story, the reader loses a little faith.

Nonverbal communication–which is based on learned, repeated, or automatic responses developed from past experiences–provides a powerful story tool for connecting the present to the past in a manner that can minimize this sense of manipulation. Nonverbal communication offers immediate, visceral information to the reader; often information that the character would not willingly tell; and always information that brings the past into the present. This makes it possible for a writer to incorporate backstory as a part of the present story action, without resorting to exposition, explanation, or ‘telling.’

When a nonverbal reaction is normal, when it matches expectations, it is close to invisible. When it is unexpected or inappropriate it is  glaringly visible and creates powerful story questions. Readers (and other characters in the story) instinctively understand that anomalous reactions require examination and explanation. Imagine a character whose reaction to a friend’s tear-filled apology is narrowed eyes and crossed arms. Why did she do that? The reader will typically assume that the answer lies in the character’s past–that at some point her unconventional reaction was a successful response, not an awkward one.

Emojis (which are literally a graphic alphabet of non-verbal communication) demonstrate the visceral power of inappropriate nonverbal response. Have you ever left the ‘wrong’ emoji in reaction to a text or a post? A thumbs up on a friend’s announcement of a deceased pet? A crying emoji when everyone else’s emoji is angry? Have you ever felt like you need to explain that discrepancy? Or delete it? Or edit it? That is the power of the unexpected response.

Non-verbal communication also reveals the past that the character might prefer to have remain hidden. For example, let’s use a character who has a troubled past with her mother. A writer can have the character ‘tell’ another character about the trouble, describing what happened, and why it still haunted. But such true confessions often don’t ring true. Now imagine the character meeting her mother and entering into a hug of greeting.

  • What if the character stood stiff and rigid through that hug, arms pinned to her sides?
  • What if she flinched as her mother approached, and drew back from the embrace?
  • What if she scanned the area, to see if anyone was looking before returning the hug?

All of these actions intimate a troubled past, but the details remain a mystery. The reader wants to understand the unusual behavior.

A single unusual reaction will raise powerful story questions; a series of them will engage the reader in putting the pieces of the puzzle into a coherent back story. This creates a web of interaction between past and present.

For example, all I know for sure about my recently adopted dog’s past is that she was found as a stray. I believe, however, that her former owner was a middle-aged man with a scruffy beard with an extended cab pickup truck who worked on construction sties and traveled on long road trips between work sites with the dog in the back of the truck. How do I know that?

  • Once while out on a walk, she stopped and stared (to the point of discomfort) at a man with a round face and short scruffy beard. As if he was close, but not quite, what she was looking for.
  • She has no fear of walking by construction machinery in action, and will sit outside the chain link fence, watching the workmen, wagging her tail, as if waiting for one of them to come claim her.
  • Every single time we come across an extended cab pickup truck, she leads us to its back door and wags her tail, asking for us to open it for her.

Clearly, my dog can’t confirm my guesses. I will never know her full story. But authors of books can confirm their reader’s guesses. Writers can lay down a series of nonverbal reactions that become the scaffolding of a coherent backstory. One that is relevant for how it influences behavior and goals in the story present. Your job, as a writer, is to build a good scaffold. Not to make every scene stand out with endless inappropriate reactions, but to use them sparingly, at key moments when the revelation of backstory propels the story forward and engages the reader.

How about you? Have you ever witnessed a moment when people’s expressions have not matched the moment? When they try to explain away an initial, inappropriate reaction? Can you think of a scene in your work where an anomalous nonverbal reaction would do the ‘work’ of pages of exposition?

Image Credit: By Photo by Fred Fehl, New York. (eBay itemphoto frontphoto back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/46/I_Feel_Pretty_from_West_Side_Story_1957.JPG


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.