Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Writing Lessons from "The Bachelor"

Some of the best dialogue in a book is the unspoken dialogue. The eye roll, the hunched shoulders, the tight jaw. Physical action can show a person's true feelings much more than words ever could.

A couple months ago I talked about a writing takeaway I learned from watching TV. So I thought I'd share another way to watch TV and hone your writing skills. Are you ready? This will revolutionize your life, I promise. Here it is.

Watch your TV on mute.

Yep, you heard it here first, folks. Grab a bowl of popcorn and the remote, then settle into your couch and watch TV with no sound (and no closed captioning).

I first discovered this trick when watching The Bachelor. I know, I know, people, don't hate me because I watch senseless television.

One night I was watching the show, and I muted the TV during commercials like I always do. I got preoccupied doing something else and next thing I knew, the show had been back on for five minutes. I glanced up and instead of unmuting, I realized something amazing was happening (other than the bachelor telling the fifth girl in a row that he's falling in love with her).

There were some major body language cues flying back and forth.

They were holding hands, and she was leaning close to him but he stayed back in his loungey position. Pretty soon, I started to have fun plugging in my own dialogue based solely on their body language.

[Girl leans forward and puts hand on his shoulder.] "So, what do you think of the other girls?"

[Guy glances across room at Smoking Hot Girl, then looks down at his drink and shrugs.] "I'll tell you they're all right, but really I just want to choose Smoking Hot Girl and be done with this stupid show."

[Girl locks eyes with him.] "I know this will sound kind of crazy, but I feel such a connection with you."

[Guy clears his throat and scoots one inch the other way.] "I'll say same here, but really I can't wait to get out of this conversation so I can look at...I mean, talk to Smoking Hot Girl some more."

I don't remember if I was right in my assessment or way off, but the bigger takeaway was the tool I'd discovered. These people's words meant nothing in light of what their body language said. Sure, I would have picked up on the vibe of the conversation with the sound on, but having the TV on mute forced me to study those body language cues, to take mental notes so that next time I sat down to work on my book, I could show the unspoken dialogue between the lines.

(And in case you're curious, this technique can work with both reality and non-reality television.) :)

Where do you draw inspiration for the unspoken dialogue in your stories? Do you have any tips or favorite ways to study body language?

*Eyes Photo by Graeme Weatherston /
*Remote Photo from
*Bachelor Photo from


Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

What a great idea!!! I never thought about doing that, though I have done it while people watching at the mall or at a restaurant. It's fun to try and figure out people by their actions and they way the dress and groom themselves.

Kav said...

This is a great idea! I'm going to experiment with it. Unspoken dialogue is so important in a book, isn't it? But I hadn't thought of that until reading your post. Mary Connealy came to mind as an example of someone who does unspoken dialogue well. Sigh, one more thing to scrutinize in my WIP.

Sarah Forgrave said...

Sherrinda - I love people watching too! It's especially fun at the airport since you see ALL types. :)

Kav - Mary Connealy is a great example of someone who does this well. And yes, the list of things to scrutinize in our WIPs can get rather long, eh? :)

Beth K. Vogt said...

Love, love, love this idea! My husband prefers the commercials muted anyway and for most shows, keeping the TV on mute isn't a problem. LOL Can't wait to try this. I may just have to start watching The Bachelor.

Pepper said...

For two reasons:
1. It's a fantastic way to broaden our view of nonverbal communication
2. It's what I do for therapy with my clients A LOT!!!! Believe me, when you HAVE to teach body language and nonverbal communication, you're always trying to figure out new ways to show rather than tell :-)
80-90% of communication is nonverbal. If I think about THAT when I write, it really helps me cue into it.

Thanks so much for sharing.

Julia M. Reffner said...

This is a great idea! I remember doing this as a teenager with my friends and making lots of snarky comments, but never thought about how doing this could aid my writing. Something to think about for my characters' body language/nonverbals!

Keli Gwyn said...

Sarah, this is a great idea, one I hadn't thought of. I often watch movies with the subtitles on so I can hone in on the dialogue, but this would be a super way to study body language.

Years ago, back when I was as young and cute as you are now (well, almost as young, although not nearly as cute, to be honest), I took a correspondence writing course through the Institute for Children's Literature. One of my assignments was to observe a total stranger and write down everything she did and said for about ten minutes. Since I spend a great deal of time at Taco Bell, I chose to watch a teen employee who had some serious spice to her personality.

The next assignment was to take that person, turn her into a fictional character, and put her in a scene by herself in which the focus was recording her thoughts, i.e. internal monologue. That was the easiest assignment of them all, which surprised me. Just by studying her mannerisms, facial gestures, and way of talking for ten minutes, I'd gotten a good feel for her and was able to get into her head. I highly recommend this exercise.

Sarah Forgrave said...

Beth - Isn't muting commercials wonderful?! I'm convinced they're always twice as loud as regular TV. :)

Pepper - 80-90% is nonverbal...Wow! I figured it was high, but I had no idea it was that high!

Julia - Making snarky comments at the TV...You and I aren't alike at all. *wink*

Keli - Thanks for sharing that exercise! I might try it the next time I have a writing date at Starbucks. :) Oh, and I love how you said an employee at Taco Bell had some serious spice, LOL.

Sidney W. Frost said...

Great idea. I notice there is a lot of nonverbal communication on TV since it is a visual medium. In the written word, we have to help the reader see. I notice I use the word "nodded" a lot, probably too much, as a nonverbal way of communication. Then, I might add something about how the person who viewed the nod interprets it.

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

I agree with Signey. It's very easy to get into ruts, like head nodding. I think we all have our ruts. Watching a muted TV/VCR/DVD and doing the exercise Kell mentioned would help pull us out of this.
Fantastic post, Sarah.
Thanks for addressing the issue and presenting the idea:)

Renee Ann said...

Funny post! And what a good exercise in learning to describe body language. Thanks for the idea!

Sarah Forgrave said...

Sidney - You make a great point about being sensitive to overdoing certain body language cues. Thanks for stopping by today!

Mary - Yes, ruts can be bad, can't they? I sometimes have to do a find/replace for certain words in my manuscripts. :)

Renee Ann - So glad you found this helpful! :)

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Such a wise tip! And I'm a little obsessed w/ that show sadly. The drama is crazy high. My husband always laughs and teases me asking, "Don't you have enough drama in your life?"

Guess not. ;)
~ Wendy

Sarah Forgrave said...

Wendy - My husband gives me a hard time about watching that show too. :) Every time I think I'm going to skip watching it for a season, it sucks me in anyway. Hmm, there's gotta be something there to apply to novel-writing...

Angie Dicken said...

Great tip! When I was in theatre a LONG time ago, we would practice our lines in a mirror and figure out facial expressions that way. Now, as I write, I find myself doing the same...It is so fun to people watch...the most interesting "material" is at Walmart, really late at night!!
It's also fun to watch the Spanish channel and try and figure out the story line based on tone and expression.
Thanks, Sarah!

Sarah Forgrave said...

Angie - Ohhh, the Spanish channel...LOVE that idea! :)

Krista Phillips said...

Okay, so I watch bachelor too. I'll admit it. Since I write romance, I call it research. Yes, I know much of it is staged. But fiction is staged too, so THERE! :-p

Okay, nuff of that. This is a GREAT idea though! My hubby and I do this all time. We'll be in a restaurant or in the car and see another couple and we'll pretend we are them and say what their body language makes it look like they are saying. It's pretty hilarious, and a big key to showing that my hubby and I are slightly insane. But still... body language DOES tell so much!

Patti Lacy said...

I've never THOUGHT of using MUTE. I just love dialogue TOO MUCH.

LOVE lines from "The Closer" and the old "Law and Order."
Look for them in upcoming books :)

MaDonna Maurer said...

This is a great idea. I live overseas, sometimes we watch the local shows. I don't understand most of it and have to "guess" by the body language. I never thought to use it as a way for writing ideas!

Sarah Forgrave said...

Krista - I love your justification for watching The Bachelor. And have you seen the movie Date Night? If not, you must! They do the substitution dialogue like you and your husband.

Patti - LOL, A self-proclaimed dialogue it. :)

MaDonna - So glad I gave you a new way to watch those local shows! :)

Debra E. Marvin said...

Great post and great blog, ladies. Thanks to Audra Harders, I think I found a new blog to love.

Lynnette Labelle said...

Great post! I'm Tweeting it.

Lynnette Labelle