A Conversation Without Words

People can’t always overhear the things they need to, or necessarily understand what’s being said even if they do hear it. They might be too far away, or the noise is drowned out by something else, like crowd-noise or waves. Perhaps they’re watching a recording in which the sound is failing or the static’s overwhelming. Or they’re using a visual-only means of magical observation. Heck, they could just not speak the language—even if someone’s talking to them and they can hear every word of it, they won’t necessarily understand!

A lot of people try to deal with the difficulty of situations like this by avoiding them entirely—they don’t cut out the sound, they make the crowd noise irrelevant, or they avoid foreign language speakers and/or always provide translations one way or another. It’s a valid strategy, and it’s certainly the easiest—but the conversation can still run, and the general gist of it can come across, without words. This is the art of the wordless conversation.

So what does it take?

Image courtesy of andreyutzu, from stock.xchng

First, pay heavy attention to body language and expression. What are the looks on the characters’ faces? How do they change as the conversation continues? What kind of posture do they take, and how does that change? Does one seem to shrink away when another gestures or speaks? Or take a slight step forward and look up at another when asking a question? If necessary, figure out what the words are ahead of time and mouth or think them while acting the parts; in a face to face game, this will get many of the nonverbal cues across, while in text it will allow you to figure out what the characters are doing so you can describe the little details properly.

Second, note the characters’ positions relative to each other. Think about your average conversation; how close or far away people stand to each other will say something about the social dynamic, and how it changes will say more about what’s going on. A character might step between two who look to be on the verge of argument, pull back in disgust when another one rests a hand on her leg, stand in one place or even step forward when being yelled at, and it’ll all mean something. Where the characters are facing can also matter; a character particularly addressing one person will probably turn toward that person, and consider what it says if she turns away.

Third, don’t be afraid to have the characters physically interact with each other and their environment. These can be obvious, dramatic things like passionate kisses out of nowhere or unexpected violence, sure, but when there aren’t words, even little things like resting a hand on someone’s shoulder or giving her wrist an extra squeeze before letting go can speak volumes. So can interaction with objects; picking them up, playing with them, using them to emphasize gestures, even stepping behind them.

If you’re dealing with conversation where the words are audible but can’t be understood, you can take advantage of tone of voice. Can you think of a single language in which there isn’t rising intonation at the end of a question? Volume, pitch, space between words, apparent emotion—they’re all more ways to get across what the characters are saying without actually saying it.

Because of its limitations, the wordless conversation is also an excellent writing exercise, both in learning to express characters’ emotions through visual details alone and in having a chance to figure out a character’s unique body language. Choose a few characters, come up with a situation, and write them through it, then hand it off to someone else to read and see how much of what just happened they can figure out. And just because the details are more useful with the sound off doesn’t mean you can’t use them with it on; the kinds of quirks and tricks that make a wordless conversation understandable can make a conversation with words more engaging.

So what are you waiting for? Leave your words behind and see what happens!


Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Half a Conversation | Exchange of Realities
  2. Wednesday Night Writing Exercise: A Silent Conversation | Exchange of Realities

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