“Look at this. The dialogue needs heavy editing,” she said.
I look. I read. “Reads great to me.”
“No, no,” she said. “He asked a question and she didn’t answer it.”
I read it again. “Sure she did.” I pass the paper back.
“Where?” She scans the page again. “The woman didn’t say a word.”
“True, but she definitely answered.”
Silence is often the strongest communication of all.
It can signal agreement, disagreement, approval or disapproval. It can signal contentment with what’s been expressed or outrage. Silence can signal a direct or indirect reaction.
Which reaction, indirect or direct and the exact nature of the reaction, is subjective. The author’s intent is open to interpretation. And that means a reader looks at the silence in context to decipher and define it.
Let’s examine a situation to see the flexibility and power of silence.
A reader reads a book wherein two people are talking about religion. One person states a criticism of a specific faith that happens to be the faith of the second person. This criticism is mocking, flaunting an air of superiority that makes the speaker feel good about not being of that faith but embracing her own. The second person reacts with silence.
What is the unspoken, innate reaction of Person #2?
In a direct reaction, the author gives the reader context to enable the reader to intuit the second person’s reaction.
If the third-party reader interprets the criticism and the second person’s reaction to it in a broader context–what’s written around the exchange–the reader will deduce the author’s intended meaning of the silence.
Whether the second person hearing this criticism of her religion agrees with the criticism, is angered by it, offended or exasperated or frustrated by it, or if she just thinks the speaker is uniformed and biased and would best serve herself by not tromping on others’ beliefs.
Whether the second character wonders why the first character is so insecure that she must justify her faith in her religion by criticizing another’s? Why must she build herself up by tearing another down.
Whether the second character feels the first, who professes to be broadminded and accepting, realizes how narrow-minded and unaccepting the criticism depicts her to be.
Whether the second character feels the first isn’t as informed about the second’s religion as she thinks or she’d know better than to criticize on the basis stated.
Or the silence could mean something else entirely. Then you have an indirect reaction. One that is separate and unrelated to the exchange, but impacts it.
Perhaps the second character has embraced a personal philosophy never to discuss volatile topics, like religion and/or politics.
Perhaps the second character sees nothing constructive in any response and considers any response a waste of energy.
Perhaps the second character avoids conflict due to criticism or esteem issues she has carried with her for an extended period of time and has not yet resolved.
Perhaps the second character knows the first has received criticism for her beliefs and felt it was wrong then and now but understands that when slapped, some must slap back–even if they’re slapping someone uninvolved who hasn’t been critical.
Perhaps the second character knows the first is seeking a fight–justification for some other event entirely and is using this exchange as a surrogate to force a confrontation.
Again, the second character could have an entirely different rationale for her silence. And the reader can’t (and won’t) know exactly what it is (or what it means to the second character) unless the author builds context around and through the exchange for the reader to assimilate and make that determination.
How the reader will react depends on two things:
1. What supporting context the author has included in the book that guides the reader into grasping the intent and disposition of the second character. What meaning the silence carries for her in this specific response in this specific situation.
2. How the reader feels about criticism of this particular faith. She brings her own emotions and reaction to the table, too. She might or might not agree. Might be content or outraged, just as the second character is. Or the reader’s reaction can differ. (Perhaps the second character feels the criticism is fear-based and let’s it slide like water off a duck’s back, but the reader takes serious exception.)
If the author has added texture to the novel that establishes and supports context, then the reader knows exactly what that silence means to the second character. Knows exactly why the first character feels the need to criticize. No interpretation on the reader’s part is required.
That’s not to say that the reader will agree with either the criticism or the reaction to it, but she will understand it. Remember, her own views on volatile issues play an important role here.
And the more volatile the issue, the more important the role becomes of the author controlling the reader’s reaction so that what is intended by including the exchange does reach fruition. The exchange and reaction fulfill their story purposees.
It helps to think of this context as “supporting evidence.” Vivid, concrete images–in the form of physical details–that portray the character’s emotional reaction.
Remember, we notice whatever has our focus. And we perceive what we notice in ways that encompass and reflect our emotional state at the time.
If the author fails to give the reader the necessary context on the criticism and on the reaction to it, then odds are not favorable that the reader will react in the way the author intended. When that happens, the purpose for including the exchange in the novel misses its mark.
So what happens then? If the author hasn’t offered that supporting evidence, or context for the exchange?
Without that broader context, the third-party reader is most likely to superimpose his or her own personal reaction (rather than the second character’s) to the criticism, and to interpret the character’s silence to mean whatever the reader’s reaction happens to be.
This can be fine or problematic for the author because it puts the reader identifying with the character in jeopardy. The content reader will continue to relate to the character. But the offended reader is going to want justice–and might not get it–because the bond between the reader and character has been broken by this disagreement on the criticism and/or reaction to it.
Broken bonds are a violation of reader trust–intended or not. And that is an inviolate rule that a wise author moves mountains never to break.
So silence can speak volumes. Can carry more story weight than words. It carries assets and liabilities. Silence can create a bond, maintain a bond or break a bond between characters, but also between characters and readers.
Silence is powerful. Often, the strongest communication of all.
©2007, Vicki Hinze