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When Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Movements, facial expressions, and past actions can convey more than words.

cherylholt / pixabay
Source: cherylholt / pixabay

I was reluctant to see the film The Artist for months after it was released, because there was virtually no dialogue, nary a clever word. It looked corny in the coming attractions. But my mother, who had excellent taste when it came to books, movies and theatre (i.e., I usually agreed with her) insisted “it should not be missed.”

When I finally saw it, I was struck how instructive a film without words could be. Settings, facial expressions and physical movement tell us what’s important. Granted, in this paean to silent films, actors sometimes mugged or exaggerated with a toothy grin or downcast eyes to get their points across. The ingénue was happy; her ivories glinted into the camera. The leading man, washed up when talkies took over, set his reels of silent films on fire. Even his dog communicated through behavior, signaling a policeman to come to his owner’s rescue by rolling over and playing dead. When the leading man discovered the ingénue had secretly bought all his possessions at auction, we saw the shame in his eyes, felt it from the circumstance of his discovering a room in her home where his personal effects were shrouded in white sheets.

A pulling motion can say “come;” a push can say “go.” Characters can pantomime their meanings, just as I do in foreign countries. To indicate cold, I might shiver; for hunger, I might pretend to spoon food into my mouth.

With “show, don’t tell” as our mantra, in workshops I let people choose from a list of adjectives—say, nervous, depressed, and pompous—and ask them to write a few sentences describing a character who is experiencing one of the named emotions. While you can do this as a freewrite, this exercise calls for a bit of thinking. What mannerisms would convey the feeling?

For nervous, I might write: She lined up her bread crumbs on the kitchen table with her knife and crossed her legs, left heel tapping the floor at 60 beats a minute, right leg swinging as if she were doing the Charleston.

After each person reads their description aloud, we guess which emotion they chose. We seldom get it wrong. While the writing may include the character’s inner thoughts, usually it’s the body language, gestures, and actions that express the state of being.

In his book, The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch describes the scene where he learns he has terminal pancreatic cancer. The doctor enters the room and knows that Randy and his wife have seen the CT scans of the tumors. A part of Randy, the scientist, collects facts and quizzes the doctor. Another part stands back, impressed by how well rehearsed the doctor is for this difficult conversation, appearing both heartfelt and spontaneous. Dr. Wolff rocks back in his chair, closing his eyes before answering questions. He leans in to Randy’s wife, his hand on her knee. But Randy notes that the doctor doesn’t put his arm around his wife, which might be presumptuous. We are in the scene. The doctor’s body language expresses concern without overstepping the line.

Facial expressions, too, convey a character’s feelings, often “the very soul of what one says,” according to Helen Keller. Instead of saying someone is angry, tell us her mouth was a tight horizontal. Instead of saying someone is uncertain, tell us how they have teeth marks in their lower lip from gnawing as they contemplated their next move.

I don't want to get political, but "No quid pro quo" when past actions belied it. What are we to make of that?

Writing exercise

Choose one of the following adjectives. Write for five minutes describing a character who embodies the quality without naming it: shy, exuberant, or critical.

Copyright © 2019 by Luara Deutsch

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