Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Silence is Golden

How do you effectively convey the concept of silence in your writing? I mean just the idea of writing down silence seems to contradict the idea of it. Writing words for silence? You can't very well leave a long passage of blank space in your manuscript. So how do you do it?

You can do it simply:
   "it was quiet."
   "no one said a word."

You can try cliches:
   "you could hear a pin drop."
   "it was as quiet as a mouse."

You can try a James-Michener approach to the quiet and offer a long detailed narrative of the plethora of sounds heard in the absence of talking or human noise.

In one of my short stories, I needed to mark the passage of time and the quiet in a relatively short amount of space. I started off by simply stating time had passed and my character was bored. That approach lacked a lot in connection and intensity. The boredom was palpable! The silence was agonizing! He had just been dropped off by his father without even so much as a backward glance. He was desperately waiting for his mother to come when she was not coming. Saying the obvious weakened the scene and undermined its power. I ended up having my character count passing cars. It was the only sound. It was the only movement in his life. It was the only thing he had to do. With the help of some ellipses (. . . ), I was able to interject the passing of time by an ever-increasing amount of numbers. . . 46,47, 48 . . . 73, 74.... In a short amount of text, the reader felt more intensely the agonizing passage of time and silence for the main character.

What are some other ways that you can convey silence through the written word?


Sarah Allen said...

Ooh, I did something like that once, in a story of a family on a road-trip and the husband and wife fought and every one is asleep, so he counts down the minutes until they get to the inlaws. I hadn't thought of it as a way to successfully intensify silence. Great thoughts here!

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Julie Daines said...

What a great and effective way to convey the passage of time.

Scott said...

The one thing I wish we could really do in writing is put in a pause, a real one, the kind that goes on just long enough to start to become uncomfortable, but not so long that it loses its effectiveness, like Twain describes in his essay. We can't do it. We can put in space or punctuation or line breaks or whatever, but we cannot control the length of the pause and make it last exactly the right amount of time. We can give the idea of a pause, and maybe say people started to get uncomfortable, but we can't really do it. Awkward spaces of silence are probably impossible on the printed page.