And how to put it on the page
It often surrounds us.
But sometimes it is just completely and utterly gone.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a moment of high trauma (personal or public). It’s the moment when something big happens, something so big that time feels like it slows down or stops completely. Your brain switches into another gear and you’re straining looking for clues, trying to figure out where the danger is coming from, what it is, and how to survive it. I’ve had people describe these moments when they’ve had a gun pointed at them in the parking lot of a motel, when a man has raised a fist in a dining room, when they’ve realized a loved one having a heart attack in their aunt’s living room, when they were at recess in fourth grade and a bully was heading over to give them a wedgie.
For me, one of the times I experienced this was at the Boston Marathon when the bombs went off, and I was trying to understand what was going on. Even though I was on my cell phone, the world whooshed out for a moment. My personal world was silent even in the chaos. Then the sounds of cops on radios and the cacophony of panicked voices and runners feet hard against the asphalt streets rushed back in.
As writers, we explain these moments and try to encapsulate them and sometimes? Well, sometimes we try too hard and write and write and write giant redundant paragraphs that instead of immersing our readers in the silence and shock and stress or a moment and instead overwhelm with noise.
Here’s the thing: There is a great power in silence in our world and on the page.
Silence appears on the page in a couple of places.
- It’s in the white space. The white space is just the places on the page where there are no words.
- It’s in the words you actually choose and how you structure them.
What do I mean by that? When we choose words on the page, those words make associations in our minds and in the readers. So, we want to pick the words sometimes that play into the silence sometimes. This is a really great device for scenes of heightened emotion and suspense.
For word choice, she cackled isn’t the same as she laughed. Those are loud things though. For a more silent experience, she whispered isn’t the same as she said.
And for structure? You have a lot to play with.
Here is a quick example.
I heard the dog growl and then I heard a scream and wondered what might be happening, what might have caused that growl and scream.
Too much writing there, right? A lot of padding. A lot of distancing words (heard, wondered) that lessen the impact and the immediacy of the moment. Here it is with a bit more silence.
The dog growled. And then, someone’s scream shattered the air. Who was that? No. What was that?
Add in white space to make it more tense:
The dog growled.
And then, someone’s scream shattered the air.
Who was that?
What was that?
Add in specifics to make it even more tense:
Hackles raised, the dog growled by the mailbox, which leaned toward the darkness of the Mud Creek Road.
And then, a shrill, cackling scream shattered the humid air.
Who was that?
What was that?
You can see all the differences in there, right?
Like any tool, you don’t want to overuse it, but you want to know about it, know that it’s there (just like you’d like to know if there was a mass of zombie gerbils trundling down the street toward your home). Sound and silence are really important tools on the page. Just like a guitarist wants to know about an entire string on her instrument and a pick and what happens to sound when you use a bridge or what happens when you tap out a beat on the guitar’s side, you want to know about all the tools you can use as a writer.
Silence is a tool, and it’s an important one. Sound is too.