10 September 2009

When Silence Speaks

My dog has bionic hearing. I guess that's to be expected, being that her ears are so big. They are her best feature, after all, something I remind her often. Lassie taught me that dogs can hear well beyond that which a human can, and Mitsi has taught me to believe it. She knows when the UPS man is over a mile away (and doesn't stop barking until he leaves). Sometimes, when it's completely silent, she'll rear up and look around, ears twitching at what only she can hear. Her favorite toys are small squeak toys, which she leaves lying around everywhere so we can step on them. It's a booby trap, because if we step on them and she finds out, we're committed to a rousing game of fetch. Sometimes, she'll be in the other room and I'll step on her favorite, the blue stuffed hippo. Miraculously, it doesn't squeak, just tumbles softly as cloth flips over carpet. Within a nanosecond, I hear the bell-like sound of a collar and my poodle races around the corner, ready to play.

Mitsi understands sound. It's a major part of her life and how she interprets the world.

How does your novel sound? What can you hear inside of it? Do the words work? The descriptions? How do they come alive when spoken aloud? This summer, I spent a week reading my current manuscript aloud. By the end I'd almost lost my voice, but it was the best editing tool I could have used. I was able to spot so much simply by reading it a different way. It's probably the most effective method I could ever recommend.

What kind of sounds do you use when you write? How do characters speak to each other? What happens when they walk outside? How are they distracted? What sounds calm them?

What about silence?

I started thinking about that last week as I finished re-reading Harry Potter. It had been a while since I'd read the series, and I wanted to read them before I saw movie #6. This time I was struck by how Rowling used silence in her books, how in the middle of an intense conversation where everything was at stake, one character would ask a question and the other character wouldn't respond verbally. At first it was Harry, demanding that Dumbledore tell him more than he was ready to hear. But in the final book, Harry employed this technique as well with those around them.

And what was said in that silence was so much more profound than any words she could have written for him.

As writers, we are wordsmiths. We weave plot and dialogue and description, all with words. Sometimes, however, the most powerful thing we can do is stay quiet.

How do you show silence in your writing?

See y'all Tuesday!!!


  1. I actually use silence in several instances to show a certain feeling, especially doubt or confusion, and occasionally reluctance. I do think silence can be a strong tool; I just hope I'm not using it too often.

  2. Oooh, I love that question, "What can you hear inside your novel?"

    And I like that last line "Sometimes the most powerful thing we can do is stay silence. I am a big believer in the power of no words at all and the power of a written word in the right place at the right time. Great post. Thanks.

  3. I think silence is hard to write well, I mean, the actual act of getting the reader to hear the silence.
    but I def. agree that it's effective.

    I love using sounds in my stories, but I'm not sure how well I use silence.

  4. I like to use silence to illustrate anger between my main two characters. Great post, Kristen!

  5. Human silence to me sounds a lot like a refridgerator humming.

    Great question. My MC lives alone and the other day I wrote a whole list of "sounds" she'd frequently hear that don't involve conversation.

    ~ Wendy

  6. I don't use silence often, but sometimes I like to show emotion through a simple action instead of words--especially to end a scene or chapter.

  7. i usually have skipped beats, and have a MC focus on a heartbeat or clock ticking to emphasize the fact they aren't talking with each other. something like that. great post to think about!

    The Character Therapist

  8. A great conversation going on over here. And, important to think about. We need to include all of the senses in our writing and hearing/sound is one that can convey so much.

    I use pauses, feather soft words and even an occasional quiet nod to bring emotion to a scene when actual dialogue would ruin the atmosphere I'm building.

  9. I can't think of any time that I use silence in my current WIP, but I am very conscious of blending sounds into scenes. Great post.

  10. Hmmm... Interesting. I guess I do the old trick of, "For a moment, she thought he wasn't going to answer." That sort of thing. Or, "She sat in thoughtful silence as he awaited her answer."

  11. Silence between two people, especially two who would be lovers, always speaks louder than words. I love incorporating silence in the middle of a conversation, or have two people meet before a dangerous task and say nothing, communicating their fears through body language and their eyes.
    Speaking of silence in the HP universe, *spoiler alert* close to the end of book 7, when Harry walks through Hogwarts during the battle, realizing he must face Voldemort alone, I invision everyone going silent, the action condensing into slow motion, as he moves unseen through the blasts of spells and the cries of pain. That scene made me cry harder than any I've ever read.
    Silence is often much louder than words...


  12. I have always read my work out loud and yes it makes a huge difference:)
    I think of writing like I do music--it has a rhythm to it and that includes well-placed pauses. I guess that would be my silence.

  13. Wow, I've never thought of writing silence before. Just how does Rowling write silence? Do you go inside the character's head then?

    I've written short pauses, etc., but this sounds far more intriquing to me--to hear silence?

    WOuld love more on how to do this effectively.

  14. Hi, Eileen!

    She just has the characters withhold from responding verbally. They usually lock gazes (or look away) and there's just a beat where nothing happens....

    I enjoyed reading about everyone's tips today! That was really cool!

  15. Your dog is adorable! I want to pick her up and squeeze her! Have a great weekend!

  16. That method works in other media as well. When I was in film school one of our first assignments was to make a good picture with no music and no words--image acting only. We had to learn to use objects, gestures etc. to make a story believable. It's the same with writing. Sometimes you don't want to employ the most powerful word possible in order to make the most powerful impression.

  17. You won the copy of Essie in Progress on my blog! I am also sending you an e-mail letting you know.

  18. Woohooo! Thanks, Clair!

    Wow, it would have been fun to make that video, Rick and Monica!

    Thanks, Jill! I definitely do that all the time.. and she has to remind me that she doesn't like to be squeezed. :0)

  19. your pup is really cute. Writing the sounds and silences in my story? I'm not sure if I'm doing that but it's a great question. I need to think about this. Tomorrow a friend is coming over and wants me to read my manuscript out loud to her.
    I've never done this but it was suggested by a writer to me.

  20. I am my own MC and since I am rarely silent I have not even contemplated how to write it. Now I have to go and do just that! Thanks for the assignment!

  21. Love your darling doggie.
    My works don't have enough silence, I think. But that will change, now that I've read this excellent post. I write non-fiction, mostly about my own experiences, and I blab a lot.

  22. Gosh, the first draft never sounds good! LOL. After that if I don't like the shape it's taking I'm in big trouble. (BTW, Anne L.B. left a message for you on my 9-13 post!)

  23. Oh, then I guess I do do that, too. I thought you meant that she inserts narrative about background sounds or internal monologue alot. Thanks for responding!!!! Much appreciated!