June 8, 2017 / 2 Comments

If You Can’t Say Something Nice…

            I wanted to prattle on for a minute about a part of dialogue we ignore a lot. The unspoken part, so to speak.  Well, not so to speak.  Literally, the unspoken part.
            Wait… can something be literally unspoken in prose?
            Anyway, as I so often do… I’d like to tell you a little story.
            I was working on a movie once which had a pretty standard romantic subplot. Estranged husband and wife, pushed apart by work (he wants to stay small town, she wants to go national), and now brought back together again during a crisis.  Like so many of the lower-budget things I tended to be on, we ended up running short on time. The place they decided to tighten things up was in the reconciliation/we-still-love-each-other scene.  You know that scene, right? It’s in a bunch of stories and a lot of movies.
            The director and the two actors huddled together and started talking about how they could trim the page and a half scene without, y’know, ruining it. Were there phrases that could be combined? Maybe words that could be swapped out for… shorter words?
            At which point the lead actor suggested… “What if we didn’t say anything?”
            Which is what’s in the final movie.  You can watch it and see the one minute, one-shot scene. The two of the working together in the lab, falling right back into old habits, giving each other little appreciative glances…
            And never saying a word.
            Some folks are intent on picking “better” words and elaborate. meticulous phrasing. That gets spread as kind of a gospel.  We’ve all seen it—the people who’ll never use five words if it can be said in ten.  If there’s a longer, more roundabout way to talk about something, they’ll find it.
            But I don’t need to do this.  I’ve talked about the “less is more” idea a few times here.  A fair amount of the time I can do just as much (or more) with just a few words.  Subtext can get a point across so much stronger than the spoken (or shouted) word, and sometimes that subtext doesn’t even need dialogue.
            I know this sounds kinda weird and contradictory. I think I’ve said here two or three or forty-four times that dialogue is one of the key ways we show character, so it just feels unnatural to have characters not say anything.  Especially when there are so many cool lines and comebacks tingling on our fingertips.
            Let’s consider it, though.  How often can a grim silence have so much more impact than the longest, most detailed monologue?  Think about how flirty someone can be with just the right gesture or look.  There’s whole schools of comedy based around the idea of an awkward silence.
            And this is going to be harder to write.  I won’t lie to you.. Depending on unspoken subtext means I need to have my descriptions perfect—not one extra adverb or adjective cluttering them up and slowing them down.  It means I need to have a great sense of empathy—that I know exactly how this moment will be interpreted by everyone who reads it, and not just by a few of my friends.
            Y’see, Timmy, this kind of subtlety is what makes my writing soar.  It’s how I bring my story to life and raise it up to the next level.  I want to recognize the chance to say nothing–to use that delicate balance of silence and description and subtext–and take advantage of it.
            Or, as K.M.Weiland once put it—“Never miss a good opportunity to shut up.”
            Next time, I wanted to discuss some basic geometry.  We haven’t done that in a while.
            Until then… go write.

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