Last night, I was watching a BBC production called The Duchess of Duke Street.
The acting was enjoyable and the historical detail amazing.
In addition, I loved the SILENCE.
There was no soundtrack.
Without a musical underscore, the language of the characters became more powerful and compelling.
Hearing that lovely hush reminded me of how seldom we can find silence these days. Roaring traffic and music blaring from the PA systems of every cafe and grocery store create a constant din whenever we leave our homes.
Back in the days when I studied theater, I learned that silence is one of drama's most powerful tools--just as important as words, and perhaps even more so. A character's silence can bring us to our knees with heartbreak or joy, in situations when speaking would be far less effective.
As novelists, however, we don't have access to the same kind of silence. Novels are composed of words, of imagined sound. We can't write real silence. The pages would have to be blank, which is kind of stupid (with apologies to any fans of experimental poetry!).
The closest we can get to silence is to have our characters perceive silence in another character. For example, if I am writing a scene in which a character goes through a strong emotional experience, such as sudden loss, I may choose to write that scene from a different character's perspective so I can show the tragedy through the pivotal character's silence rather than words.
Of course, novelists do own one tool that is NOT part of the dramatist's toolbox. We can reveal a character's thought. Dramatists can only do this through monologue that represents thought, which is not quite the same thing.
The challenge of depicting thought in our novels is to capture its real complexity. So often we fail in this task. My current challenge for my 1855 novel is to revise the POV characters' thinking in order to make their motivations and reactions more specific and multilayered.
My writer friend Allison Pittman creates a fascinating silent character in her new inspirational historical romance The Bridegrooms. One of the supporting characters is a young woman with selective mutism due to trauma--in other words, she doesn't speak, even though physically there is no barrier to her speech. However, Allison reveals aspects of this non-POV character's thought by using snippets of poetry written by this character to open each chapter of her novel. I loved this creative use of silence.
How do you handle silence in your work? Are there any scenes in which a character's silence plays a major role in the story? Do you portray any characters who are persons of few words?