Not dialogue again!

sometimes words are unnecessary

Sometimes words are unnecessary

I rambled on about dialogue the other day. How to make two voices sound different by drafting the scene with no names. But there are occasions when words are either unnecessary or not enough.

You know how it goes: someone drops a bombshell ‘I’ve leaving’ or ‘I’ve contracted leprosy’ – what follows is not likely to be ‘Really, darling?’ (Unless of course the reason darling is leaving is because she never listens anyway and that is what she would normally retort.) In times when words are going to be few or non-existent, you need to keep your head. What you add in will either be body language or description. ‘He looked stunned’ will not cut it. You need to work out just how stunned he is, then how he reacts when he’s stunned (cries, vomits, hits her over the head with a cricket bat) and how that manifests itself in your words. Because he might not have anything to say, but you have to.

Writing silence is hard. I know because I am writing silence at the moment. Actually, that isn’t true: I have been re-writing silence because I discovered that the passage I was revising wasn’t working and I was trying to figure my way through it. It’s one of those ‘I’m leaving’ scenes, but with a dirty great difference: there is no affair, no obvious big deal. Nothing has really changed in their relationship, yet everything has changed and the reason he’s leaving is pride, pique even. Getting his mood right, getting their actions and reactions was proving hard. He won’t be crying, vomiting, or hitting her over the head with the cricket bat, but he’s said it and so I’ve had to work through it. And I found it very difficult.

Writing silence is one of those occasions where if you’re not careful the whole thing descends into melodrama and becomes unbelievable. If the moment is high drama and the characters are very dramatic and the genre dictates that someone will end up dead here, then you can go at it full tilt, with lots of language, foul and otherwise before killing someone off. But often high drama is written low-key and nobody is going to die, just hurt. And that may mean there are no words and precious little action. You can lengthen the silence by internal dialogue, but that only works inside one head. You can’t ever be in more than one head at a time. So emotions need to be translated into visible reactions and words found for those reactions.

I have discovered that there is a book called The Emotion Thesaurus: A writer’s guide to character expression by Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman. I have not yet thoroughly investigated it (downloaded from Amazon to Kindle, but probably will buy the ‘real’ book as Kindle version isn’t easy to negotiate. Not sure if this will help anyone else, but I’m giving it a try.

And if you’re writing silence, I wish you well.


10 responses to “Not dialogue again!

  1. Silence is very hard to write and if I remember, there’s an online version of that thesaurus…I found it last week or so but didn’t bookmark it, shame on me.

    • Don’t know about the online version – if you find the link, can you let me know and I’ll add it to here? – but it wasn’t expensive as a download and I will definitely be ordering the real one because I think it will be easier to look stuff up.

  2. Many writers are masters when it comes to writing silence. It’s usually the dialogue that many writers have trouble with, most often due to voice; or the lack thereof. Just remember to use action in place of dialogue; the outcome should be the same, but quiet.

    I caught your other post, too. I happen to enjoy all aspects of writing. I occasionally hit a pothole every now and again, or have a ‘brain fart’, but that can be expected from any writer. As usual, just keep writing. (We love to read it!)

    • I wrote plays for a while, preferring the dialogue, but I love all the writing now too.
      I might post a bit of my awkward scene at some point. It has driven me a little crazy. It’s still not right. I have left it. Dare say at some point a little twist will occur to me and I will go back and tweak it. And you’re right, it’s the action that will make it work, but I need the stunned silence from one of my characters first. I do appreciate your comments C.A. They are always bang on the point and you have a particular voice. That ‘foreign-ness’ you were mentioning in another post works this way too.

      • As I learned years ago: To beat around the bush will only lead to more confusion, due to the already-confused needlessly pondering the simple meaning of yet another ‘what’s been said’. — Straightforward, bluntly, and to the point will surely clear up any confusion.

        Silence from a character is possible. I wasn’t suggesting that you make them speak. I was simply saying that without dialogue (without having them speak) the actions of your characters should tell what’s going on, in place of their spoken words. — I’m sure you knew this.

        • Yes, I do get it, but the scene I am re-writing was not working. I have given her some internal monologue now and some stuff to do, pulling leaves off a bush and so on, but it still feels a bit dead.
          I suppose the best thing to do is to leave it a while and go back to it. Maybe then I will see what is still wrong with it.

          • Just a thought: Imagine yourself in the shoes of the character and how you would likely act or react in a similar situation. Jot down some ideas about it and look them over hours after you’ve written them. Don’t try so hard to work it out; allow it time to work itself out so you’re able to write it down.

          • I know you’re right.
            Just need to give this some space.
            It is a turning point in the book, a sort of crisis for my two principal characters and that is why it feels so important.
            But I’ll leave it to stew for a bit.

  3. I think you’re right to leave it for a while. Something will occur to you, you might see a similar scene on television or overhear a snatch of conversation which will give you an idea and you’ll solve the problem.

    • I think this has got to be left to fester. Have re-written it so many times, can’t work out what’s good and what’s bad any more!
      Actually, you’re right. A snatch of conversation may just spark an idea. Thank you.
      Onward and upward. Let the thing wait!

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