Try replacing one-word verbs with a phrase or a sentence. A person could fiddle with her hair. A guy could shift awkwardly from one foot to the other, looking as if he wished he were anywhere else but here. A man could give a snort of derision. Etc. Think what the person is trying to convey, what he/she is feeling, and then ask yourself--how does a person who feels that act? How would you know someone feels that way--what would he/she do or say?
My advice: First of all, grab an old novel and flip through it, seeing what those characters do. Steal some actions. Make up new ones: He shifted in his seat. She pressed her thumb into her cheek. He winked at her with his third eye.
Secondly: you don't always need staging. Kill the staging. You can have a dozen bits of dialogue without anyone saying or nodding or sighing or nose picking.
[i]John gripped the door jam and looked at his feet. "I don't know. And I don't think I'll ever know." He left without a backward glance.[/i]
I have read that the first thing you put down you should suspect. We always toss in the cliches first. It actually helps us to write, but then we must go back and kill them.
I find the best way to overcome cliched stuff which crops up is to sincerely put yourself in the place of the person and think about what would accompany that nod. Is it a grim nod acknowledging doom? Is it a knowing part-of-the-game nod?
"He/she nodded in grim realisation . . ."
"With a sly wink and a wry smile he/she nodded . . ."
It's tough going back and realising that we fall into these traps and it does become habit.
Another thing you might consider is not having your character do anything during dialogue but allow background narrative:
"I can't see an end to this." The children with the kite got closer and the poodle kept jumping, trying to catch the tail."
This is a device also for suggesting that your protagonist feels detached from the current circumstances.
Nice call. Well done.
Yep, well done. You could retitle it to 'Noddy' ;-]
I came across a great section in 'Self-editing for fiction writers' by Renni Browne & Dave King about 'Easy Beats' in dialogue. It's quite difficult to do but careful interruption of dialogue with 'stage business' can make a huge difference.
Thanks for the replies everyone! It's good to know I'm not alone in this. I have noticed that Jack Reacher is a big fan of nodding, so perhaps I'm in good company.
I've gone through and tried to cut out all unneccesary nods, smiles, shrugs and eyebrow-raising. It's been a really useful exercise as it's forced me to think of more creative ways to create beats between dialogue. In some cases I've taken the dialogue attribution out entirely and let what the character is saying stand on its own.
Just goes to show the importance of a thorough edit!
You've inspired me to redraft my books now...haven't got much nodding to deal with, but I do have a lot of dialogue where it's not clear who is talking to who, that and a lot of people leaving rooms, hmm...
In my first book, my detective liked to give non-committal responses by saying "huh". One of my beta readers got so annoyed by this that she got a red pen and numbered each instance, and as the numbers progressed, they got larger and larger and included more and more exclamation points. Brutal, but effective.
I'm going to nag on this just a little. Look at hugely popular books -- as many of them are filled with REAL dialogue and body movement as not. Look at the genre of some of the most popular programs on television - Reality TV. Reality TV is HORRIBLE dialogue because it sounds just like real people and most of the planet isn't concise, eloquent, witty, etc. The body language is about as limited as the vocabulary -- being filled with stink eye, eye rolls, middle fingers, talk to the hand and so on.
Jersey Shore and ilk may be studied hundreds of years from now - but only by sociologists and historians, not art majors. And hundreds of years from now everyone posting on this board will be dead (science and manufacturing haven't even given us flying cars yet, so don't pin your hopes of successful cryogenics available to the masses, etc.). Do you want money now or to be studied by art majors two hundred years from now?