Life is chaotic, fiction is focused. Reality tends toward amoral inconsistency. Fiction, though, from its inception, has conveyed meaning and significance through causal, focused character arc. Unlikely as it perhaps seems, the silent pauses of the story—the moments when readers supply what writers imply—help shape the moral world that expresses theme.
In Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen, storytelling guru Robert McKee, observes that “Silence is the ultimate economy of language.”
Is this goal worthy? The English Definition Dictionary defines economy of language as “sparing, restrained, or efficient use, esp. to achieve the maximum effect for the minimum effort.” Isn’t that what every reader, and thus every writer craves?
Admirably, McKee, who is all about practicality, urges,
To master the technique of saying little but expressing much, first train your eye to see into the depths of the unsaid and the unsayable inside the people around you, then train your ear to hear the said.
So the novelist begins, as all the best novelists do, with observation, but of a very particular kind: watch first, listen after. Because it’s not just politicians who rarely say what they mean. What are you watching for?
~ Body language.
What is the speaker doing? And are the movements and gestures consistent with the words?
~ Facial expressions.
Are they forthright or disingenuous? What might one slightly raised eyebrow mean?
This is the magical space where readers rule. What might they imagine when neither the characters nor the narrator says a thing?
Once you’ve done some psychological training with your eyes, train your ears.
Is the character hostile, sarcastic, subservient, or what? How might you communicate the speaker’s mood without casually, lazily, carelessly resorting to adverbs? Most of them “tell.”
Few of us say everything we mean. If we did, more people would get fired and divorced. Instead, we hint with questions like “Is that what you’re wearing?” Insinuation is at least as crucial in fiction as life.
Most fiction balances action with introspection. What integrates them? Silence. The not-so-empty pause between one movement of a sonata to the next engages the listener. Readers, too, require a brief delay to absorb what’s lyrical, appalling, non-negotiable, or inevitable. Silence can accentuate the midpoint of a novel, the climax of a scene, the motivational potential of a pressure point. Let your readers slow down so they compare, contrast, think, and appreciate.