Friday, April 2, 2010

Elizabeth George caught using silence as reaction—well

One of the best ways we get to know characters in a novel is through their reactions to story events. Think of any fork in the road of your own life: you could take any number of paths. Will you face the conflict? Deny it? Work around it? Retreat and regroup?

Which your character chooses to do speaks much of him.

Note the word “do.” Perhaps representing this concept as “re-actions” will get my point across better: action takes place, and the character acts in response. I’m not talking about body-level reactions in which toes curl and stomachs churn and throats constrict and that vein in the temple throbs. Such clichĂ©d biology eats away at the literary quality of your manuscript and can give the reader acid reflux after a while. But even these reactions are better than no reaction.

The most common rookie storytelling error, I think, is to not let your character react. It usually goes something like this:
“I stood there with my mouth hanging open.”
“She froze to the spot, unable to do a thing.”
“He fought for a witty comeback but could think of nothing.”
“I was unable to speak.”

Let your character react! It may be realistic to think of a great comeback ten minutes after a conversation ends—we’ve all done that—but your story should be better than life if you expect us to take the time out from ours to read it. Let your character be witty. You as author may be unable to think of a great re-action when a bully punches an introvert who won’t fight back, but when revising, let the introvert kick a toad from the sidewalk so we see how violent behavior is passed down the line.

Action-reaction is at the very heart of plot. This simple formula also follows sage writing advice to stick to writing what happens instead of what doesn’t happen.

Only when you grasp this concept fully can you harness the power of silence as an active response. In her mystery Deception on His Mind, Elizabeth George writes a powerful passage between her series character, New Scotland Yard officer Barbara Havers, and her neighbor Azhar, a Pakistani immigrant who deflects racial tensions by keeping to himself.

Earlier in this scene Barbara has been trying to get Azhar to spill the reason he is whisking his daughter away on a hasty trip by sea. She almost gets something from his young chatty daughter—but Azhar cuts her off and sends her home to finish packing. Barbara tries another approach with the father, obliquely referencing the wife that abandoned him. Then George inserts the following:
Azhar’s face was what it always was: the most unreadable of any man’s in Barbara’s acquaintance. And he had no compunction about letting a silence hang between them. Barbara bore it as long as she could before she said, “Azhar, I apologised [Brit. sic]. I was out of line. I’m always out of line. I do out of line better that anything else. Here. Have a fag. The sea will still be there if you leave five minutes later than you planned.”

Azhar relented, but slowly. His guard was up as he took the proffered packet and shook out a cigarette. While he lit it, Barbara used her bare foot to shove the other chair back from the table. He didn’t sit.

Okay: he doesn’t react in dialogue or in action. That should send up a yellow flag to revisit this section during revision. But when taking a closer look you'll see that inaction actually works well here.

In this dialogue passage silence does reveal character: Azhar is tight-lipped. Barbara—and since Azhar is not a point-of-view character, the reader—will have to work harder to understand this man and his motivations. Mystery surrounds him. And his unwillingness to take the offered seat reveals that he really doesn’t trust the neighbor with whom he has been friendly in the past.

But note that while George does not have Azhar react to the silence, she does not stop short of delivering character. She has Barbara react enough for both of them, further revealing her protagonist in a humorous way.

So silence can indeed be golden, even for writers. But use it sparingly, and with purpose.

Have you ever conquered non-reaction in your own manuscript? We'd love to see it! Share your new-found character reactions in the comments section.

Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."


  1. The "zero sum" reaction is a tough one. It ca n be terrific if the author does it well. So much is left to the imagination.

    It's worth trying as either a way to challenge yourself or a way to surprise your readers with something different.

  2. Kathryn,
    I love your series - the whole idea of pointing out things done well is wonderful.

    Today's example shows a powerful use of silence. Thanks for sharing.


  3. Silence is not often written well. Thanks for the example of it being used very well to show character.


  4. I just thought of something one of my characters needs to do. Thanks.

  5. I really like that "rule": Write what does happen not what doesn't. Definitely worth remembering. And it's always good to check your scenes against the Situation/Reaction/Effect formula.

    Blood-Red Pencil

  6. Silence can be comfortable or uncomfortable, depending on the occasion. Yes, it's good to use it wisely.

    Morgan Mandel

  7. Excellent, Kathryn! It's a difficult thing to do well, I think. Something to strive for!

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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