Just With: Non-Verbal Cues in Writing and Theatre

I’m excited to report that I recently received my first round of edits from my publisher for my debut Young Adult novel. While I’m no different than anyone else who feels a lot of pressure when it comes to revision, my background in theatre and new play development has taught me to see the feedback and perspectives of others as a gift. In that way, receiving the report from Lakewater Press was a relief – finally, I’m not alone in my own head and pages anymore!

Just With (For Blog Layout)..In this latest revision, I’m working to show the emotions of my characters through what they do, instead of relying on clever adjectives to the descriptive work for me. How a character leverages their body to express their intentions, emotions, and reactions to their environment is something I’ve explored with countless students and professional actors as a theatre director and educator. So, I searched my memory banks for a theatre activity which focuses on non-verbal communication that I could easily transform into a writing activity.

Allow me to introduce you to Just With, an easy game of non-verbal communication for actors and non-actors alike. It’s an activity I’ve had in my back pocket for so long that I truly can’t remember where I learned it. I am, however, excited to share it with you in its original form for theatre practitioners, and to introduce two new versions of the exercise that I’ve created for writers of fiction, memoir, and playwriting. Perhaps even poets will find this exercise useful – you’ll have to let me know!

JUST WITH: EXPLORING DETAILED NON-VERBAL COMMUNICATION

Genres: Fiction, Memoir, Playwriting, Theatre (Acting, Improvisation)

Creative Process: Idea Generation, Character, Expressive Detail

Age Level: 13+

VERSION 1 (FOR THEATRE):

  1. To ensure that everyone begins this exercise as a “blank slate,” instruct participants to sit in a chair using neutral posture: legs uncrossed, feet on the floor, straight back, arms down at their sides, expression and gaze soft.
  2. Guide participants through the process of using their bodies to detail an emotion by slowly walking them through the following five rounds of exploration:
    1. Show that you’re <<emotion>> just with your eyes.
    2. Now, show that you’re <<emotion>> just with your eyes and face.
    3. Next, show that you’re <<emotion>> just with your eyes, face, and arms.
    4. Still sitting, show that you’re <<emotion>> just with your eyes, face, arms, and upper body.
    5. Standing, show that you’re <<emotion>> with your whole body.
  3. Then, ask participants to shake that emotion out of their body and return to their neutral posture in the chair.
  4. Repeat at least two more times, selecting vastly contrasting emotions. If participants are ready for it, add another round to the game by asking them express the assigned emotion by walking across the room.
  5. Once the participants are comfortable with the exercise, you can encourage them to “zoom in” on a body part. Ask them to explore anger just with their hands, for example, or sadness just with their shoulders. Isolating body parts in this way helps participants hone in on the subtle details of non-verbal communication that we unconsciously use every day!

TIP: Allow participants be shy and/or subtle the first round(s). In later rounds, coach them to make bolder choices by saying, “Before we move on, exaggerate showing <<Emotion>> with your <<Body Part(s)>> by 25%. How about 50%?”

VARIATION: You can use the Just With structure to explore how to non-verbally communicate a character’s environmental circumstances or location, too!

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Me playing “Just With” with a frog statue on a writer’s retreat at the Morris Arboretum. With a face like this, how could I resist?

VERSIONS 2 & 3 (FOR CREATIVE WRITING):

If you’re a writer who thrives by doing activities on the page, start with Version 2 before challenging yourself with the visual sleuthing of Version 3. If you’re a visual learner and creative (like me!), start with Version 3 of this activity to warm up your descriptive imagination before trying Version 2.

VERSION 2 – JUST WITH FREEWRITE CHALLENGE

  1. To ensure that you begin this exercise with a “blank slate,” clear your mind of any particular characters, real or imagined. Your goal is to list as many non-verbal cues as possible, and imagining particular individuals can cause us to self-edit, or prevent us from thinking outside the box.
  2. Start simple by choosing a big, bold emotion. If you’re not sure what to pick, try fear, anger, grief, or surprise. Now, list one to three different ways a person could non-verbally convey that emotion for each of the prompts below:
    1. Just with their face.
    2. Just with their upper body.
    3. Just with their lower body
    4. Just with how they’re sitting.
    5. Just with how they’re standing.
  3. Repeat at least two more times, selecting vastly different emotions.
  4. Compare your lists. Are you using the same gesture to express multiple emotions? If so, what details can you edit or add to differentiate these non-verbal gestures?
  5. Once you’re comfortable with the exercise, try zooming in on a more specific part of the body to explore the finer details of non-verbal communication. Example isolations include:
    1. Just with their feet.
    2. Just with their hips.
    3. Just with their stomach.
    4. Just with their chest.
    5. Just with their shoulders.
    6. Just with their head.
    7. Just with their mouth.
    8. Just with their nose.
    9. Just with their cheeks.
    10. Just with their eyes/eyebrows.
  6. Bonus Round: Think Metaphorically! Return to some of your favorite descriptions, and activate poetic language and imagery to revise them.
  7. Bonus Round: Think Character! At last, choose a character(s) from your work-in-progress and circle any non-verbal cues on your lists that would fit their personality. Jot down why. Then, put a square around any non-verbal cues that wouldn’t fit the character. Jot down why. Now you have some new ways for your characters to physically express what they’re thinking and feeling!

VERSION 3 – JUST WITH OBSERVATION CHALLENGE

  1. Find a public place where you can perch comfortably for an extended period of time, and where there’s a decent flow of people moving through the space.
  2. Start simple by choosing the most expressive person in the space, and use the Just With method to note of the details of their posture, gestures, and expression. (Please do so without making this individual uncomfortable!) To help you find the finer details, use this list as a guide:
    1. Just their mouth.
    2. Just their nose.
    3. Just their cheeks.
    4. Just their eyes/eyebrows.
    5. Just their head.
    6. Just their shoulders.
    7. Just their chest.
    8. Just their stomach.
    9. Just their hips.
    10. Just their lower body
    11. Just how they’re sitting.
    12. Just how they’re standing.
  3. Reviewing your notes, answer the following prompts:
    1. What do you think this person is feeling? Which of their cues suggest this?
    2. How do you think they feel about their environment and/or the people around them? Which of their cues suggest this?
    3. What do you think they’re thinking? Which of their cues suggest this?
  4. Bonus Round: Think Metaphorically! Return to some of your favorite descriptions, and activate poetic language and imagery to revise them.
  5. Bonus Round: Think Character! Looking over your lists, are there any non-verbal cues that you observed that would fit one of the character(s) in your work-in-progress? Would your character use that gesture to express the same emotion you observed, or a different emotion entirely? Now you have some new ways for your characters to physically express what they’re thinking and feeling!

As a writer, Just With is helping me push past my go-to physical descriptors (eye rolling and grimacing are my biggest repeat offenders) by identifying new ways to explore non-verbal expression. I hope these activities do the same for you – please talk to me about your experiences with them in the comments! Remember, whenever I post an activity, prompt (like this one), or a guided writing exercise in the Support For Writers section of my site, I will always write a blog post about the activity as well. That way, if you follow my blog you’ll always know when new exercises become available.

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