13 March 2015 - 10:42 pm

Speaking silences

Shhh (Picture by psychonix via DeviantArt)

(Picture by psychonix via DeviantArt)

Silences are powerful things. We see it every day, in life and in fiction: weighted silences, pregnant pauses, comfortable quiet, air so taut that sound doesn’t dare disturb it.

Lately, I’ve been using silences in my fiction more and more. I’m finding that it’s a fascinating tool, and a way to look at a character that offers information even when they’re trying not to give anything away. Silences, in and of themselves, say something.

A rule that I try to hold myself to is that everything must have a purpose in my writing. If I can, I make a single element in a scene do double- or even triple-duty.

It is very easy to get into the flow of dialogue and forget just how useful the lack of a response can be. I’ve seen examples of discussions where the participants spill everything, answer every query no matter how uncomfortable, simply because they are in a place where they are supposed to speak. Ask yourself: would they really answer that question? Would they really reveal all these things, or is it the author pushing them to do it because they need to move the plot along? Question everything. Make every reaction and lack of reaction earn its place on your page.

Silence is a choice, and this is why is it such a powerful tool for a writer. Every choice our characters make tells us something about them.

Think about the impact of the person who falls quiet, or looks away, or is suddenly busy doing something else. A person can give an entire response in just a glance, whether it is framed with ice or a smile. Or they may choose the more subtle avoidance of not answering a question, by changing the subject or commenting on something tangential, shifting verbally towards more comfortable subjects. Their silence may hide in a punch or a kiss. A more obvious silence is left in the wake of the one who walks away, with or without dramatic door-slamming.

All of these reactions tell us something. Maybe we don’t know exactly where mother’s best china is, but do we really need to? Now we know that the character doesn’t want to talk about the china or its current location. Perhaps they’re ashamed, or guilty, or secretly have it being restored to its former glory as a surprise.

Sometimes, the most fascinating character is the one who isn’t yelling like the rest. Sometimes, they’re the most dangerous. Perhaps they’re bored, or considering their options, or waiting for an opening to coldly stick a knife in, or so furious that it’s better for everyone if they don’t let it out.

When the building is falling down, the image of the woman on the ground standing still, looking up, not screaming or even trying to get out of the way, speaks more loudly than all the screeching steel and crunching concrete.

And when someone stops dead, frozen in place by the words or actions of another, we may not need to see any more. The fact that they have stopped, that what they have heard or seen has touched them in a deep or shocking way, tells us something.

I have a deep love of mouthy characters, who will go off on a rant when pressed the right way and let everyone know exactly what they’re thinking. No holds barred, their inner selves bared and daring anyone to counter them. Starry is this type of character: when she’s pushed in certain ways, a switch will flip and she’ll lose her shit in many different ways (mouthing off is just one of them). She has torn open time and space, threatened pirates, and blown up half a moon in fits of temper. I absolutely love pushing her buttons.

Similarly, Rosie has no qualms about letting people know exactly what she thinks, loudly and in the most crass language she knows. It’s actually an effort for her to keep her mouth shut, usually prompted by a superior on the ship. She expresses herself baldly and is quiet cheerful about punching people in the face, and I love that about her.

At the same time, I adore the quieter characters on the Starwalker. Elliott is a good example: for all his foul-mouthed-ness, he’ll close down if things get uncomfortably personal and all you’ll get out of him is a scowl. There might be a relationship building between him and someone else, but if anyone mentioned it directly, he’d avoid the whole subject, probably scoff it away. Put a hand in his in private and he’ll be fine, just as long as you’re not vocal about it.

Dr Valdimir only ever speaks about professional or crew-related matters, never about himself or his past. He also refuses to display personal affections in public, though for different reasons to Elliott, going so far as to ignore or pull away from his lover when other people are around.

In a similar vein, Cameron only tends to talk about professional matters. She’s probably the most carefully-spoken of the crew, and only ever speaks when she has something of value to offer to the situation. Otherwise, she falls into observer mode, to absorb as much information as possible. She, in particular, knows the value of other people’s silences and the weight of what they’re not saying. As the Chief of Security, it’s part of her job, and she has been bitten enough to know the importance of it.

As part of building my characters, I usually work out this type of thing. What would make them uncomfortable? Shut down? Clam up? Knowing what would make them close their mouth can be just as useful as knowing what would make them explode.

As with all elements of building characters (and worlds), I wind up with way more material than I can ever use. For example, with Elliott, no-one has tried to mention the budding romance going on, not even the person he’s having it with. It might come up one day, but it hasn’t yet. And that’s okay. The Lieutenant hasn’t confronted Dr Valdimir about being ignored, either (at least, not on the page). But I know those moments are there as options, should they become appropriate and necessary for the story at any point.

I feel compelled to add that not wanting to reveal something (as the writer) isn’t a good enough reason to make a character silent. Too often, I’ve seen stories that stretch themselves out by refusing to have characters exchange appropriate information. Just like having characters spilling too much, too easily, this doesn’t do the characterisation or the story any good. It’s a cheap and lazy way to maintain tension and make the story longer without having to do something creative and interesting.

The best rule of thumb is that if a character would say something, have them say it. But know when they would be silent. Use that. Make your readers join the dots. Hint at things. Tease.

Because those silences can say so much more than whatever words they might trot out will. Embrace the power of your silences. Use them. Wallow in them. Enjoy the quiet of life and all it can do for you.

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