Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Value of Silence

I love silence. Silence is usually what I get in the bush. No phones, no television, no cars roaring past, no neighbours fighting, no kids screaming. Occasionally I get motorbikes or chainsaws. And last weekend I got wasps. Lots of buzzing. Quite lulling really, as long as they didn't hang around being annoying. European wasps here are a blight. We seem to have a nest that may need eradicating. If I ever find it.
Sharon Gray is a columnist for the Age newspaper and her piece this week was on silence. She did a 10 day silence retreat over New Year - I try to imagine that but I can't! But she quotes a saying which I am requoting here: "Before you speak, ask yourself: is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence?"
Thinking back over some things I've heard people say recently, I reckon that's a very good question.
In fiction, I often see student writers who forget the value of silence in dialogue. Silence can be an effective powerplay in an arguement, it can be a turning point, it can win or lose the fight. If you watch too much "talking heads TV", the kind where words just fill in all the airtime and give the glamorous heads something to do other than exchange long, smouldering looks, I think you can fall into the trap of thinking that your characters have to do the same thing. But I do love great dialogue in a book. Snappy. Smart. Funny.
I've read two of my three "desperate shelf picks" from the library so far. Interestingly, both had main characters who lived on the fringes. "Keeping Bad Company" by Ann Granger features a young woman who has been living in squats and gets involved in a kidnapping via a conversation with a homeless man. "Beautiful Lies" by Lisa Unger has a young woman who is a freelance writer (although she seems to get pretty good writing assignments!) and lives in a crumby part of New York, in a building that is falling down. Apart from an incredibly slow beginning, where Chapters 2 and 3 are nearly all backstory and explanation, the novel was a good read. Lots of twists and turns and surprises. A lot of it felt guessable but I resisted. I don't like having the solution too easy to work out. I have to say, though, that now I've finished it, I can't remember exactly who the villain turned out to be. There was more than one, but who was the real baddie?
I am currently making lists of questions for my crime novel rewrite. The kinds of questions that you ask a policeman or a doctor. Luckily I will be able to ask the right people. And then I need to go for a drive to some of my locations and take photos and make description notes. It may mean I have to rewrite some parts of the novel if I guessed wrong in the first draft, but that's part of creating a credible world.
Now if only I could travel to Charleston and North Carolina for location research for my historical novel...


Anonymous said...

And then I need to go for a drive to some of my locations and take photos and make description notes.

That's my excuse ... er ... reason to travel too. Having the little digital camera is an absolute boon for recording details.

Silence. I wish.

Tracey said...

Silence -- what is that, exactly? Even now, when I'm up alone writing, the computer fan is humming, the fridge is making noises. But this is as close as it gets.

But I love it in dialogue as well. It's something I'm using more and more in my own work. I usually get my students to write an argument scene where one person is silent for the whole argument. They almost always recognise that they've done a bit of powerful writing here, because it gets them to really concentrate on character movements and thoughts and expressions. A challenging but worthwhile exercise.