Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Golden Silence

I watched an old Columbo episode the other day. As always, the episode begins with the focus on the killer, but in this case it was especially interesting because it begins with silence—five minutes of silence. There are the normal sounds, like water running and footsteps, but no one speaks for the first five minutes of the show. I found myself wondering if I had muted the television or something. Five minutes, in television, is a very long time to go without saying anything.

We would normally expect that the first five minutes of a television show would take five pages of a script, but it is possible that the first five minutes of the show required less than one page. That tells us something about silence and the writing. They don’t mix very well and yet there is something about silence that can make a scene especially poignant. The writer may have said something like, “INTERIOR, DAWN: man removes power charge from shell casing and replaces with four strips of C4, while sweating profusely.” More details are required to describe the scene completely, but no more than a paragraph is required.

One of the things a novelist might want to ask is how we can translate the silence we might see in a movie or television show into something that appears on the page. Silence is more than just writing paragraphs without dialog. We could write pages and pages without dialogue and still not have silence. Silence is an action and like all actions it has a duration. The Bible tells us that there will be silence in heaven for thirty minutes. For there to be silence in a novel, we must bring the dialogue to a halt, but the clock must march on. That means that we can’t replace the dialogue with description, because description brings out clock to a halt. We must then show that the clock is still moving by action and as much as possible it needs to be action that doesn’t require sound.

Let’s look at some examples. First, a noisy example:

Kim watched Ella coming out of the field with an armful of yellow flowers. “I see you’ve picked some really nice flowers.”

”I drive through her every day and I just had to take part of this home with me.”

A dead stop:

In the field, as far as the eye could see, there were yellow flowers. A few green plants had grown up among them, but the rest was a sea of yellow. A woman stood silently gathering flowers. Two cars sat beside the narrow farm to market road. The morning air had a slight chill. The only sound was from a distant sawmill churning out rough cut boards.

True silence:

Ella pulled the car to the side of the road and came to a stop next to the field of yellow flowers. She opened the glove box and pulled out a small knife before she opened the door and stepped out of the car. She crossed the ditch, being careful not to step in the water still left from the rain two nights earlier, and waded out into the sea of yellow. The pedals of the flowers felt like smooth silk as they brushed against her hands. She examined several flowers before she saw one she especially liked and cut it free with the knife. From plant to plant she went in her search for only the most perfect and the most beautiful flowers. Each time she found one, she took the knife and sliced into the woody green stems.

That’s a start. We could go on, but it would make this post extra long. The first example shows no silence at all. The second is silent, but no time is passing. In the last example, we see time passing as she moves from one action to the next. The more we focus on the actions she is taking the more silent the scene becomes. We don’t even want to hear the thoughts in her head. Perhaps she isn’t thinking about anything except which flower she will cut next. She is alone in her world and there is silence.