Thursday, February 23, 2006

Non-Verbal Thesaurus

Don't need No Stinkin' "SAID!"

I write my dialogue without using "said" tags, unless I am actually describing a change in voice, tone, or volume in the same paragraph. And even then I avoid them. I use the speaker's actions to define who is speaking to whom. I use ACTION TAGS.

What the heck is an Action Tag?
Want to express how your characters really feel -- even when their lying -- without head-hopping? Cue their dialogue with their body-language!

Dialogue is Visual -- not just a bunch of words.
Watch the average conversation between two people. 90% of that conversation isn't in what's Spoken, it's in what they are DOING as they are speaking. It's in their Body Language. Body-language cues the reader as to what is going on in a character’s head – in ADDITION to dialogue and internal narrative.


A Writer's Cheat-Sheet to

Annoyance, Resentment, Rage
a. Jaws tensed to a biting position; “I’m going to bite you!”
b. Chest display, and/or hands-on-hips; “I’m bigger than you.”
c. Cut-off and head-jerk cues; “I don’t want that.”
d. Hand-behind-head. “I may or may not strike you.”
e. Fists, palm-down beating gestures. “I will strike you!”
f. Frowning and tense-mouth expressions; “Don’t make me bite you.”
g. Growling voice tones; “Consider me a threat.”
h. Staring; “I consider you a threat.”
I. Gaze avoidance; the head is turned fully away to one side; “Run while I am not looking and I will not attack you.”

(Cover of Devil x Devil by Sachio Sawauchi)

Revulsion, Loathing, Nausea
a. Curled upper lip, a retracted upper lip, and mouth movements. "I feel like vomiting."
b. Digestive vocalizations of repugnance. Guttural sounds ("ach" or "ugh"); "I AM going to vomit!"
c. Narrowed or partly closed eyes; “Don’t make me look at that!”
d. Lowered brows of the frown face. "Ewww...gross!"
e. Backward head-jerks and side-to-side head-shakes. “Keep it away from my mouth.”
f. Visible protrusions of the tongue. “I can see that it tastes bad.”

(Art by ROYO)

Anxiety, Apprehension, Dread

a. Angling body away; “Don’t touch me.”
b. Release of underarm scent; “Go away -- I stink!”
c. Increase in breathing rate. "I'm going to run away!"
d. Trembling and/or chattering teeth. "I want to run away!"
e. Crouching. “Don’t hurt me!”
f. Crying. “I’m hurt enough!”
g. Displacement gestures; “How did I get here?”
h. Fast eye-blink rate. “I don’t believe this!”
i. Fear grin. “I’m friendly! Honest!”
j. Widely opened flashbulb eyes. “I don’t believe this!”
k. Unconscious escape motions designed to remove a body part, or parts, from danger (e.g., flexing the neck to lower and protect the head). "Don't hit me!"
l. Freeze reactions; “Am I in danger?”
m. Hair-bristling; “I feel danger!”
n. Accelerated heart rate. "I'm getting ready to run away!"
o. Tightened shoulder muscle tension; “Do I need to flee?”
p. Screaming; “Don’t touch me!”
q. Squirm cues; “Let go of me.”
r. Staring eyes with dilated pupils; “How much danger am I in?”
s. Sweaty palms. "Too slippery to grasp."
t. Tense-mouth. “Don’t make me bite you.”
u. Throat-clearing. “I do not approve.”
v. Audibly tense tone-of-voice, either low and close to a growl, "I'm warning you..." or high to present a non-threatening sound. "I'm not a threat!"
w. Yawning. “No fangs, see? I’m not a predator!”

Contentment, Well-being, Joy

a. Laugh or smile
b. Crying; “I am overwhelmed.”

Unlike most other facial signs of emotion, the smile is subject to learning and conscious control. In the U.S., Japan, and many other societies, children are taught to smile on purpose, e.g., in a courteous greeting, whether or not they actually feel happy.

A true (i.e., involuntary) smile, crinkles the skin around the outside corners of our eyes, forming "crow's feet" or smiling eyes.

(Art by ROYO)
Sorrow, Unhappiness, Depression, Gloom

a. Bowing postures; “I’m terribly sorry.”
b. Cry face and lip-pout; “Please don't hurt me anymore.”
c. Gazing-down; “I am not a challenge.”
d. Slumped flexed-forward posture of the shoulders; “I give up.”
e. Audible sigh; “I give up.”
f. Compressed lips; “No, I don’t want that.”

The facial features constrict as if to seal-off contact with the outside world. In acute sadness, muscles of the throat constrict, repeated swallowing occurs, the eyes close tightly, and then tears.

(Art by ROYO)

Indecision, Misgiving, Doubt

a. Involuntary sideward eye movements; “Who is watching me?”
b. Self-touching gestures; “Am I still in one piece?”
c. Frown
d. Hand-behind-head; “I don’t think so…”
e. Side-to-side head-shakes “No.”
f. Sideward head-tilts; “I don’t want that…”
g. Lip-pout, lip-purse, and tense-mouth expressions “That tastes bad.”
h. Palm-up gestures; “I surrender.”
i. Shoulder-shrug; “Don’t touch me.”

Men will rub their chins with their hand, tug at the lobes of their ears, or rub their forehead or cheeks or back of the neck, in reaction to the increased tension. Male college students express uneasiness by changing their sitting posture to a more direct body orientation. “I’m going to to defend myself.”

Women will put a finger on their lower front teeth with the mouth slightly open or pose a finger under the chin. “I have no fangs, I am not a predator.” Female college students show uneasiness by sitting still and arm-crossing. “Dont touch me.”

(Art by ROYO)

Acknowledgment, Compliance, Surrender

a. Turning away “No thank you.”
b. body-bend, body-shift, and bowing “Please don’t…”
c. displacement cues “How did I get myself into this?”
d. facial flushing
e. freeze reactions “Am I in danger?”
f. gaze-down; “I am not a threat.”
g. give-way; “I will not challenge you.”
h. head-tilt-side; “Don’t…”
i. Mimic of superior’s body movements “I will not challenge you.”
j. laughing; “I will not challenge you.”
k. palms-up; “I surrender.”
l. exaggerated personal distance; “Don’t touch me.”
m. pigeon toes; “I can't chase you, I am not a threat.”
n. shoulder-shrugging; “Don’t touch me.”
o. shyness; “Don’t notice me.”
p. difficulty gazing directly at, or cross lines of sight with, a dominant individual. "I don't want to challenge you."
q. higher vocal pitch "I'm weak, and helpless."
r. yawning; “No fangs, see? I am not a threat.”

Note the considerable overlap between expressions of lower status (submission) and fear.

(Art by BROM)

Influence, Power, Control

a. Eyebrow raise; “Are you challenging me?”
b. Hands-on-hips posture; “I’m ready for battle.”
c. Head-tilt-back; “I dare you to bite me.”
d. Palm-down gesture; “Do I need to strike you?”
e. Swagger walk; “I’m stronger than you.”
f. Table-slap; “I will strike you!”
g. Lower tone of voice, close to a growl. "Don't make me bite you."
h. Wedge-shaped chest display; “I’m bigger than you.”
i. Direct stare; “I consider you a threat.”
j. Looming with chin down; “I will bite you.”

Aggressive behaviors include the head brought forward toward another person, chin out and pushed forward, wrinkled skin on the bridge of the nose, and a sharp movement of the head towards the other person, as though in preparation to bite.

The Business Suit
Built-in Aggression
The business suit allows a powerful, influential ‘wedge-like’ silhouette for business and public affairs.

Exaggerated chest display Strength cues are tailored into every Brooks Brothers® suit. The coat's squared shoulders exaggerate the size and strength of the upright torso. Flaring upward and outward, lapels enhance the illusion of primate pectoral strength. Dropped to fingertip level, the jacket's hemline visually enlarges the upper body to gorilla-like proportions. Pads and epaulets cover inadvertent shrugs and slips of the shoulder blades, to mask feelings of submission or uncertainty in the boardroom or on the battlefield.

(Art by ROYO)

LOVEAffection, Devotion, Attachment

a. Physical contact, including hugs and kisses. "You belong to me."
b. Increased breathing rate; “I want to smell you.”
c. Courtship behavior; “I want to make love to you.”
d. Direct gaze with wide pupils; “I find you pleasing to look at.”
e. Facial flushing "You make my heart pound."
f. Head-tilt-side; “Are you looking at me?”
g. Increased heart rate "I am aware of you."
h. Mimic of behavior and/or appearance; “We make a set, we belong together.”
i. Softened tone of voice; “Come closer.”
j. Closing personal distance "I want to touch you."

For The Stages of Courtship:
Go to: Making Romance Happen

Summary of Facial Expressions

1. Nose:
a) nostril flare (arousal)

2. Lips:
a) grin (happiness, friendship, contentment)
b) grimace (fear)
c) lip-compression (anger, emotion, frustration)
d) canine snarl (disgust)
e) lip-pout (sadness, submission, uncertainty)
f) lip-purse (disagree)
g) sneer (contempt)
3. Brows:
a) frown (anger, sadness, concentration)
b) brow-raise (intensity)
4. Tongue:
a) tongue-show (dislike, disagree)

5. Eyelids:
a) flashbulb eyes (surprise)
b) widened (excitement, surprise)
c) narrowed (threat, disagreement)
d) fast-blink (arousal)
e) normal-blink (relaxed)
6. Eyes:
a) big pupils (arousal, fight-or-flight)
b) small pupils (rest-and-digest)
c) direct-gaze (affiliate, threaten)
d) gaze cut-off (dislike, disagree)
e) gaze-down (submission, deception)
f) CLEMS* (thought processing)

*CLEMS -- An acronym for "Conjugate Lateral Eye Movement." When the eyes move sideward (to the right or left) in response to a question. Rightward movement is associated with symbolic thinking, or Memory, (what we KNOW,) while Leftward Movement is associated with visual thinking, or Creativity, (what we INVENT).

Right = TRUTH -- Left = FICTION
Don't just SAY it! ~ SHOW IT!
Skip the dialogue "he said / she said" tags altogether by using Body-language cues and ACTIONS to SHOW what the characters mean when they say: "I love you."
“I love you too.” She rolled her eyes and sighed dramatically. “Oh yes, I truly do love you.”
“I love you too.” She dropped her chin and pouted. “Oh yes, I truly do love you.”
“I love you too.” She glared straight at him. “Oh yes, I truly do love you.”
“I love you too.” She turned away and wiped the tear from her cheek. “Oh yes, I truly do love you.”
"I love you too." She raised her balled fist and smiled with bared teeth. “Oh yes, I truly do love you.” She thrust up her middle finger.

Morgan Hawke
This information gleaned and paraphrased from the research by:
 The Center for Nonverbal Studies (CNS).


  1. Morgan,

    This was truly amazing. I love the non-verbal thesaurus. (I love resource books period) Anyway, thank you for posting this. You are making our jobs easier by providing this information.

    By the way, did you know there is a reverse illustrated thesaurus? It gives the concepts as headings and specifics under the headings. ie boat -- gives all the nautical terms that go along with it.

    Anyway, thank you so much for continuing this blog page.

  2. Great new article!
    (I've been revising a story, and the heroine always either stares or glares. I think she glares once on every page. Hmmm :) )

  3. I want your whole "how to" book! LOL.

    New "Morgan says" pass through the WIP - this time looking for "asked" and "said" :)

  4. Can't wait for the book too! Hmm, wonder what kind of non-verbal action charterboats was doing when he posted on your blog? *snicker*

  5. Hey Pat,
    - I'm just trying to be helpful. I DID know about the Reverse Thesaurus! I also have the "Descriptionary" a Thematic dictionary!

    Hi Daria,
    - I'm glad you liked this post! I keep telling pwople that they don't need to use "said" but they always come back with - "Then what do I use instead?" Hopefully this answered that question.

    Waht's up Maura!
    - "Morgan says"??? EEP! I'm not trying to make your writing life harder - Honest!

    The writing book is in Edits! As soon as I know something I'll announce it to the world.

    Paige, good to hear from you!
    - I think he was just looking for a blog to spam. Mine was NOT a good idea.

    Morgan Hawke

  6. Wow, this is amazing! This is something I really need help with as I try to avoid using "said" too, so really appreciate your taking the time to do this!

  7. I was wondering what that first commenter was doing when he advertised charter boats. LOL

    Well, at least he liked your blog.
    Maybe he was just being helpful, giving us all an insiders look in the world of charter boats. Another resource if you will. LOL

    No? You're probably right. Just a spammer. But, as I said, at least he liked your blog.

  8. Don't you DARE feel bad, Morgan. What you're doing is making my writing BETTER!

    If/when I get a chance to meet you, I owe you at least a drink. Or maybe a nice piece of silver chainmail jewelry....

    You rock, you explain things in concrete ways that I can really "get" them and with each new thing I learn, I can tell my WIP just gets better.

    Now... about Flight of the Titania.....

  9. Hi there,

    This is a pretty awesome entry. Its really cool the way you have the descriptions set out. Just wanted to say that I love your work, and finally getting out there in publishing, your tidbits have helped polish my writing.

    Mila Ramos

  10. Well gee...I was going to post a comment about using alternatives to "said," ie. hissed, muttered, and the like because I was using them in the first page of a novel I've started. Then I truly looked at the sentence I was going to use as an example and it was like a lightbulb popped on and I saw how I could turn that into body language cues instead.

    The difference between what I had and what I now have:

    "Stupid boy," Brereton muttered under his breath and continued to walk once more.

    “Stupid boy.” Brereton squared his shoulders and glared at the street corner before continuing to walk once more.

    Nifty! Thanks a bunch for the non-verbal thesaurus. I have a feeling I'll be back here quite a lot.

  11. Saxgoddess25,
    -- Your second line is a terrific improvement. With just a few word exchanges, you went from stringing thoughts together to creating an image that I could see in my mind's eye. Bravo!

  12. This is very informative! I'm always looking for ways to improve my writing. Thanks :D