Unwritten Dialogue

16 01 2010

In college, one of my favorite professors was a Brazilian fellow named Dr. Eduardo Neiva. His main focus was on Communication Theory. One of the many excellent books he referred me to when studying communication theory was Edward T. Hall’s The Silent Language. If you have not read this book, you should.

To briefly summarize the book, it is all about silent communication. It is about how people from various cultures use more than just words to speak. In fact, most communication theorists assert that 10% (or less, depending on who you ask) of all communication is verbal. The other 90% is contained in other nonverbal cues such as proximity, facial express, and even time.

For example, let’s use the simple word “hi.” It is only one syllable. How can this be communicated in more than one way? It has to do with multiple factors. Let’s say you see someone skipping up to you with a smile on their face. When they say “hi,” you understand based on their body movement and the expression on their face that they are giving you a friendly greeting. On the other hand, let’s say you made a spouse, parent, or child angry the night before. When you see them, they don’t smile at you. They arch their eyebrows up and say “hi” with a scowl on their face. This “hi” means something completely different in this context than the first example. This “hi” says they acknowledge your presence and no more. Based on their posture and tone of voice, you may understand they are still angry with you. Also, timing could come into play. Say you see someone in a social setting. You greet them in a warm and friendly manner. If they ignore you for a few minutes and then say “hi” in a soft tone of voice without a smile on their face with their back turned to you, the speaker might be sending the message they are not happy to see you for whatever reason. One word, one single syllable, can be interpreted in so many ways depending on the delivery, timing, facial expressions, and body language accompanying that syllable.

Alright, what’s this have to do with writing?


When we write, we are the senders and the only tool available at our disposal to send our signal is text — just random letters and symbols. Through the use of these symbols we hope to convey pictures to the reader (or receiver). If we ignore our “Silent Language” we are only giving our readers 10% of our intended signals, only 10% of the full picture. That’s just sloppy. In order to convey the other 90% of our intended signals we need to address multiple silent signals, such as our senses (touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound) for example.  This is why description is such an important aspect of our narrative voice. Tone also becomes important for this reason. Various images and symbols can be used to convey meaning.

Our “Silent Language” is an extremely important consideration when writing dialogue. We have to find ways to convey to our reader the full intended signal of our dialogue. Just a word doesn’t cut it. You may have to explain how that word is conveyed by the speaker. See my “hi” example above. So much of communication is non-verbal. We should strive to understand and utilize the various types of non-verbal communication in order to verify our readers understand our signals.

The meaning in our dialogue, sometimes the bulk of the communication between characters, should take place outside of the text in our quotation marks. I have found in my own writing that striving to utilize unwritten dialogue can create a more “human” story. It forces the writer to follow one of the cardinal commandments of writing: “Show don’t tell.” 

For example, a touch on the cheek may be a more profound way for a character to express their feelings for a loved one than having the character state those words explicitly with text.




2 responses

17 01 2010
eduardo neiva

Many thanks, T.J., for the recollection. It made my day. Best regards–EN

17 01 2010

Glad I could make your day! I hope life has been treating
you well.

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