Erratic Breathing and the Steely Glare...

This article was originally written for, and published on, The Romance University

I read somewhere that 90% of all human communication is non-verbal. I am not sure I agree with the figures because I make my living using words, however I do subscribe to the idea. A lot. Sometimes it is not what we say but how we say it that is the most important.

Let me give you an example- if you invited somebody new to your house you, as the eager host, cannot help but watch their reaction to your humble abode to gauge their first impressions. Forget the easy compliments. Anyone can say ‘What a lovely home!’. Those words mean nothing without the accompanying physical ‘tells’ which let you know whether or not your guest actually thinks your home is lovely. If their eyes widen with surprise, you feel good. If you watch those eyes slowly scan the room and fix on the red wine stain in the corner of your carpet that no chemicals, thus far, have been able to remove, you feel self-conscious. Ashamed. Maybe even defensive. Your opinion of your guest changes.

Just like that.

For me, a good romance novel is positively teeming with physical tells. It’s even better if I can see inside the protagonists’ heads and I can see their instant reactions. I love to see the opposing points of view as quick, errant thoughts because that is exactly how we all behave. We can smile on the outside. Internally we could be seething. Or offended. Or uncertain. Or very, very bored. And these things leak out without us realising, informing the world there is far more going on than perhaps we want them to know or are comfortable with them knowing.

If you write, then you will have heard the mantra Show Don’t Tell, so when I create a scene, I have to build up the layers. Of course, were I genius, such things would flow out of my pen without conscious thought. Unfortunately, I have to work at it.

Yesterday, I was writing a scene in my latest Regency romance (Yes… I am one of those writers!) and it lacked something. Let me give you the potted gist of what is going on. I have a wealthy heiress who has escaped her kidnappers, who has been found roaming the woods by an

impoverished but very proud gentleman. He hides her in his house to recuperate from her injuries, intent on delivering her safely home as soon as it is safe to do so. She’s used to the finest things in life and getting her own way. He is ashamed that he is in dire straits. Both of them secretly fancy the pants off of each other.

My scene started like this:

“I need to talk to you,” Jack said.

He watched her carefully pop the pins back into his mother’s old pincushion and then sit up on her heels. “Talk away. I am all ears.”

“I am afraid your Mr Layton has upped the reward for your safe return.”

Yes, I am yawning too. I am not seeing any emotional or physical tells which let me know how they are feeling. Those tiny, unconscious nuances which help us to understand the significance of the moment. I don’t care about these one dimensional characters at all, so why would my reader? How does the reader know he is proud or going mad with lust?

“I need to talk to you,” Jack said feeling lustful.

“He lustfully watched her carefully pop the pins back into his mother’s old pincushion and then sit up on her heels. “Talk away. I am all ears.”

“I am afraid your Mr Layton has upped the reward for your safe return.” He knew she believed he would turn her in because he was poor.

Eeew… Kill me now! I am telling, not showing and I have made the scene worse with my clumsy attempt at adding what my teenage daughter calls ‘the feels’. I am a useless failure of a writer. A fraud. I can’t write! What was I thinking to claim that I could… (Yes, I am one of those writers too!). Surely I can fix this?

Time for those layers then:

“I need to talk to you.” Jack stood stiffly at the doorway, unsure of whether or not he should enter or not. It was his room, after all, but while she had laid siege to it felt wrong to barge in. There was already the air of the feminine about it. She had made the bed differently. The pillows were plumped and stood on their sides; the bedcovers draped in an aesthetically pleasing fashion. He watched her carefully pop the pins back into his mother’s old pincushion and then sit up on her heels.

“Talk away. I am all ears.”

She wasn’t. She was all hair and legs and curvy bits, but that was not what he needed to discuss. The bed suddenly loomed larger in the room.

“I am afraid your Mr Layton has upped the reward for your safe return.”

Jack saw a flash of panic cross her face and realised she assumed that meant he had surrendered her for the money. As if he were such a low, immoral creature who would do such a thing. “I do not need Mr Layton’s five hundred pounds Letty.” The numerous, urgent things he could do with five hundred pounds did not bear thinking about. “I prefer to earn my money through honest labours. I thank-you for your lowly opinion though.” His father would have pocketed the money without a moment’s hesitation. As would all of his other dead ancestors. Why couldn’t she see that he was different?

I am not sure if I have finished tinkering with it yet, but I like where it’s going. There are layers now, like an onion, which say far more about the characters than the dialogue ever could. There might not be 90% non-verbal communication, but even my daughter would have to concede I might have captured some of ‘the feels’.

Virginia Heath’s debut novel That Despicable Rogue is published by Harlequin in May 2016

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Virginia Heath


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