Reading Between The Lines (Silence as a Literary Device)

Reposting because I’ve been reminded recently of things people omit or don’t explain or can’t spit it out.

 

I’ve learned a very interesting technique in my Style and Poetics class, recently.  It’s called Silence, and a google search turned up next to nothing on it (there was a bit of info, but not much, and certainly no suite101 articles) so I’m posting my understanding of it here so that there’s just a little more on it out ‘there’ in web land.  Please be aware that this is only my interpretation from my lecturer’s teachings, so it is a bit ‘third party’.  Hopefully though, I’ve interpreted the info correctly and this hear is accurate and effective.

Silence

Reading between the lines, or when authors write one thing but mean another.

If you were to ask me what I thought of The Rules of Attraction, I’d probably say to you “It has a strongly designed cover…”  What do I mean by that? The answer: I dislike the book itself, so I’m focusing on the cover instead.  I said one thing, but it was a cover-up (pun not intended) for something else – by stating one thing, I avoided saying another.  Silence, therefore, is all about interpretation, hidden meaning, and indirectly stating something, usually unpleasant or a guilty pleasure that others would frown upon.  Or, you could also use what my lecturer calls ‘foggy signifiers’, that is, instead of describing a woman as tall, black hair, blue eyes, blah blah blah, you may write ‘she burst in looking like sex and desperation’.  Which is more effective?  The answer is the second one, obviously, because it’s more vivid and uses stronger words to describe the character without actually describing them at all – just what they ‘ooze’ (in this case, ‘oozing’ sex and desperation).

Because ‘misery lit’ is so popular right now, let’s use an example along those lines.  Say a girl has been beaten by her father.  She has a black eye.  When her friend at school asks her what happened to her eye, she can respond a few ways.  One, she could say nothing.  That’s silence in a literal, no-creativity kind of way.  Actually, saying there’s no creativity, no artistic merit, in a lengthy pause isn’t really fair; there could be any number of character or plot-driven reasons for the pause, namely fear, indecisiveness, whatever.  Point is, a lengthy pause, while illustrating silence, is a literal understanding of the power of not saying something.  Her silence would speak volumes, but it’s not all that could happen.

Now, to go beyond the obvious approach, the girl with the swollen, bruised eye could answer with words.  She could say “My father beat me.”  Or, she could say “I slipped and hit my head on the door knob.”  Which says more?  The second one, clearly.  She would be hiding the fact of what happened behind words, and you would have to read between the lines to understand the meaning behind her words.  She’s avoiding telling her friend that her father beat her, and this has more impact with the reader because of what she’s not saying.  In this case it’s what she’s not saying within the dialogue.  This is the kind of silence I like to call innuendo.  A great example I can think of is in the first episode of The Sopranos, where the Tony is at the psychologist’s and he relates to her that he and a guy who owes him money “had coffee”.  He says they had coffee, but in actual fact, the guy drops his coffee and runs, to which Tony gives chase and then beats him up.  Coffee, indeed.  That is what I mean by not saying something – ie: Tony doesn’t say “I showed up, the guy dropped his coffee and ran, so I chased him, beat him in front of everyone, and taught him a lesson about owing me money.”  Tony says “We… had coffee.”  Funny, and effective.

Finally, there is a type of silence that I call ‘omission grade silence’.  This, simply, is a type of silencing where something is completely left out of the text.  The example given in class is where a wife says something the husband hates, and it pisses him off and tips him over the edge.  You don’t actually see the murder happen, but the very next line, he’s cleaning up the blood with a sock.  How did he kill her?  That’s what the detective will have to piece together.  By omitting, or leaving out, the murder itself, you play with the reader’s head and their expectations, and this can be a truly powerful technique if handled correctly.

So to summarise, there are a few different ways you can use what isn’t said to resonate more strongly what is.  You can do this with ‘foggy signifiers at key moment which describe what a person or thing radiates instead of a bland, wanted poster description of their appearance.  You can do this with pauses, but to really get a strong effect, you can make the reader read between the lines to get your true meaning, by doing something crazy like saying one thing but meaning another.  Or, you can simply omit a key detail or scene from the text, and make the reader have to piece together in their mind what just happened.  This can also apply to dialogue.

Any of these can make a bland part of your writing into something else, something that is packed with hidden meaning.

 

 

2016: Man, The Name of the Wind is GREAT at this. SO many fan theories I’m learning about now that I have people to talk with on this one (I only know two people who’ve read it, and only after pestering from lots of people did they cave in and they were glad they did it).

 

 

https://wordwarwriter.wordpress.com/2010/03/30/silence-as-a-literary-device/

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