I’d like to introduce you to a friend and fellow writer Donna Shea. She is going to be my guest today writing about short stories. Donna has worn (or still wears) many hats in her life including (but but not limited to): attorney, innkeeper, rotary club president, chef, fitness enthusiast, traveler and writer. Please welcome Donna Shea…
For most of my life I’ve written short stories, usually less than 5,000 words. In the short story genre, word choice is critical. Brevity and conciseness often rule, so getting the story right requires deliberate word choices to accurately portray characters and their unique traits.
Most of my stories have been loosely based on actual experiences, which shocked or amused at least me, and, it turns out, my readers. Surprisingly little actual, outside research has been required for my prose. In addition to my Hungarian grandmother, my blind neighbor’s dog, practicing law in the nation’s capital, making my own beer, and raising a brilliant, red-headed artist — owning and operating a 10-room bed and breakfast provided rich fodder I still mine.
When something happens or stirs a memory that I want to write about, I try to verbalize the events and human responses. Often I’ll tell the stories numerous times at parties or writers’ group gatherings to see how the topic is received. I listen for laughs and sharp inhalations, and embellish the telling accordingly; this is, after all, still fiction. But mostly I watch and learn from the nonverbal communications bouncing back at me. I keep track of the comments, especially the questions, so I know what to include with the next telling. And I mentally capture the audience nonverbals to portray my two-dimensional characters.
Nonverbals are more than hand gestures, eye contact, and pursed lips. These behaviors are often combined with posture and voice timbre to indicate and emphasize the listener’s reaction, level of interest and emotional response (or – horrors! – lack thereof). For example, a story about a heroic bat rescue inside our 19th century inn ended with the freed bat murdered by one of the outside kitties thrilled to have a midnight snack gifted to her on the lawn. Who knew bats can’t fly from ground level?
When I first told that story to a group of women from a local church, many exhibited what could have been either horror or surprise. No one laughed. Try it now – open your eyes wide, inhale deeply, and put your dominant hand in front of your mouth. Look in the mirror. What do you see? How do you feel? It’s pretty clear they were not amused.
However, when I told that same story at an innkeepers’ conference, the audience laughed aloud, tossed their heads back, slapped their knees, clapped a little, and looked at each other for confirmation that “Yes, innkeeping is a crazy business”.
Nonverbal communications are valuable writing tools. Bringing nonverbal gestures into your writing humanizes and differentiates your characters. More than voice or even words, nonverbal communication clues me in to what is on another person’s mind. I use it for character depth and to differentiate between like-seeming actors. Beyond their uttered words, my characters usually have particular, and sometimes quite peculiar, physical behaviors such as a facial tic, a fake limp, a smile that shines through whether praising or berating, bodily scratching, lip-licking, toe-tapping, touching, or finger-pointing.
We must be mindful that nonverbal communication isn’t always universal. For example, the “thumbs up” sign is an obscene gesture in Iran, Greece, South America and Russia. Gliding a finder down one’s nose in the Netherlands means a person is miserly. And the “OK” gesture so common in Western countries – joining the thumb and middle fingers with the remaining fingers raised — indicates money in Japan, yet a severe insult in Brazil.
It’s been said that the best communicators are sensitive to the power of the emotions and thoughts communicated nonverbally. The same applies to writers. Train yourself to observe and record nonverbal communications at restaurants, in cars, at the grocery store, in class, in church, at the beauty salon, on the subway, at work, or while ordering coffee. Your writing will be better for it.
It’s Your Turn, WG2E-Land: How many of you are Epublishing Short Stories? And how do you work those fabulous bits of nonverbal communication into your writing?
The Best of The WG2E Wishes — Donna Shea