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Writing Advice from the Bookshelf: Tom Chiarella on Silence

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Excerpt from Writing Dialogue by Tom Chiarella:

Writing Advice from the Bookshelf: Tom Chiarella on Silence |

There are moments when silence comes naturally to a character or scene. In these cases, silence seems the natural answer, an extension of the exchange between two people. . . .

There are moments when nothing can be said. Many things might stand behind this sort of silence. Pain. Conflict. resolve. Here, the person stops speaking because silence is the only answer. Silence is the response. . . .

Assume you’re writing a scene in which two brothers are arguing in a bar. They reach a moment during which the younger brother will reveal his secret. Say he stole money from his brother at a low point and since then he’s felt himself in a spiral. You lean back in your chair and decide to let the conversation make the choice. You wait to hear the words of the younger brother, to feel for the tension in what he says next. You expect it to come easily. The story has been building toward this for days now. But hours pass. . . . Hold on. What if the brother didn’t speak? What if he held the secret? What if he said nothing? . . .

Maybe there’s another way to continue this exchange. Work against your expectations of what should be said. Say less. Say nothing. Let the scene take the weight. . . .

When a character goes silent, holds back or turns away in a moment like that, much is revealed. That silence stands as an act in itself. That silence might heighten tension or provide resolution, signal a parting of ways or, by contrast, an agreement. Sometimes the answer lies in not speaking, in keeping quiet.

Work Cited:

Chiarella, Tom. Writing Dialogue. Cincinnati, OH: Story Press, 1998. 80–82. Print.

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