Sometimes a look can say it all. Sometimes there are no words to express a feeling. Author John Dobbyn reminds us in this essay that there are times when it’s best not to over explain and allow the reader to take control of the stories beautifully unfolding in their minds.
By John F. Dobbyn
Vital as it is for a mystery/thriller writer to have a way with words, an even greater gift is to have a way without words.
Words are necessary to erect the structure of character, setting, and plot. But if the writer trusts the reader, an even greater depth to the story can be achieved by leaving enough rooms vacant of furniture, or at least sparsely furnished, to allow, no, compel the reader to enter into the act of “furnishing” it with his/her own imagination.
The central character in my series of four, soon to be five, legal thriller novels published by Oceanview Publications is a 27-year old criminal trial lawyer who tells the stories in the first person. Throughout the series, I have shared with the reader the fact that Michael Knight is an inch or two over six feet. Beyond that, I have never given the reader one more detail of his physical appearance. And that has been deliberate.
By my telling the stories in the first person, I believe and hope that the readers live more personally through every terrorizing situation I inflict upon Michael. They experience Michael’s courage, as John Wayne defined courage, “being scared to death, but saddling up anyway”. They feel constricted by Michael’s sense of honor. He will bend, warp, and fracture the truth to survive a situation, or to gain the advantage over the “bad guys”, but he will walk into hell rather than break his word once given. They feel his profound admiration, if not hero-worship, for his aging senior partner, Lex Devlin, as it grows from one novel to the next into a mutual father/son love.
And along the way, almost without realizing it, the reader has filled in the most finite details of Michael’s physical appearance, from the color of his hair, the shape of his nose, the color of his eyes, to the cut of his physique.
I only know this because I have asked readers how they see him. The answers have been as detailed, and as different from each other, as anything I could have dreamed up. And what they are “seeing” is frequently a far cry from the Michael I visualize. And that’s the magic of silence. The reader has unknowingly entered into the creative process and given birth, at least in part, to a character of his/her own. I love when that happens. It gives the reader something of a personal stake in the outcome of the story, and that gives a greater depth to the satisfaction in the resolution.
In painting other characters, I tend to be more generous with the details of their appearance, but again, not without a disciplined infusion of silence. Rather than giving in to the temptation to describe them elaborately, I use a few brush strokes to paint their most prominent, defining physical features, much like a caricaturist doing a sketch.
Given these few descriptive hints, it is amazing how each reader will draw on the character’s personality traits, as suggested by what the character does and says, to “see” a fully formed image. And that image, unique to each reader, is the personal investment that draws the reader more deeply into my fictional world.
The silence technique works with plot as well as character. I have nothing against an author’s spewing blood in living color across the pages. Some writers have an almost poetic knack for describing raw violence in wrenching terms. It’s not for me. I don’t do it. I prefer to use a disciplined silence to invite readers to infuse out of their imaginations whatever degree of blood, pain, and gore suits their sensibilities.
In the fourth novel in the Michael Knight/Lex Devlin series, “Deadly Diamonds”, there is a scene in which Michel accompanies a former IRA soldier, accomplished in martial arts, to a bar in one of Boston’s dicier sections. Michael needs to confront one of six gang members in the bar and live through it. His comrade tells Michael to wait outside while he “cleans house”.
I keep the reader outside the bar with Michael. The only details I give of what is taking place inside the bar are the sounds Michael hears of smashing bottles, fractured pool cues, impacting fists, and dropping bodies. I never describe the violence visually, but the reader “sees” it in whatever images are conjured in the reader’s individual imagination. Again, probably without realizing it, the reader is drawn into an active partnership in the storytelling. It is like the difference between watching a crime show on television, with all the details presented visually to the passive viewer, and listening to one on the radio, with all of the action and characters played out on the screen of the listener’s own imagination. Somehow, I’ve always preferred the latter for absorbing storytelling.
As for setting, is anything more disconcerting than having the author of a thriller break the flow of the action and suspend the suspense for a cadenza on the charm of the surrounding countryside? Television shows do it constantly for commercials, but that’s to pay the bills.
Here again, silence is not only golden, it is welcome. If anything unique about the particular landscape or cityscape has a bearing on the plot or level of suspense, all to the good. I’ll go for it, but only with enough of the impressionist’s spare brushstrokes to trigger the creative glands of the reader to fill in the details. Even as to my beloved Boston, I have to squelch the desire to give the reader a travelogue at the expense of the suspense.
Ah, but to say it is one thing. To do it in the heat of novel writing is another. I had the good fortune to be tipped off to the technique by two of the best editors I have ever experienced. The first was the former elder stateswoman of St Martin’s Press, God rest her worthy soul. I sent the manuscript to her and received it back within three weeks. Her comment was, “It is twenty thousand words too long. And I say that without reading a single word of it.”
I recovered from that shocker and sent it to my current editor through three novels and counting, the most perceptive and insightful editor I’ve ever known, Pat Gussin of Oceanview Publications. The second shock was when Pat said, without hearing of the previous comment, “We’ll take it – if you can eliminate twenty thousand words.”
My wife, Lois, (my in-home editor) and I set about scanning every phrase of the novel and slicing out everything that was not essential to building suspense. It was like removing my kidneys, my liver, and several other vital organs to see my best and cutest and funniest lines lying gasping on the floor. But it worked. The novel had leanness, a cogency of flow, a sustaining of tension that it never had before.
I’ve carried that lesson in discipline through the next three novels until it is now second nature. And I sense that the storytelling is so much the better for it.
It’s like the sculptor who was asked how he fashioned a perfect likeness of his subject, Harry. He said, “I just take a block of marble and knock off everything that isn’t Harry.” The trick is to do the same with the essence of a story.
Perhaps the first teacher of us all in this art was the “master of lean” Ernest Hemingway. Without knowing it at the time, I think that aspect of his uniqueness was what drew me instinctively to his writing style. If you want to see this technique in its ultimate degree, try any novel by the powerful Irish novelist, Ken Bruen.
Like all writing techniques, if this use of silence can be done, it can be overdone or underdone. It requires practice, experimentation, and fine-tuning. The instrument the writer is learning to play is the imagination of a hypothetical reader. And that is truly a challenge. But once it becomes instinctive to the writer, silence can be at least as effective as words.
John F. Dobbyn is an American mystery writer and Professor of Law at the Villanova University School of Law. As a mystery writer, he is best known for his stories set in Boston and featuring the lawyers Lex Devlin and Michael Knight. He is the author of four novels, including “Black Diamond” and “Deadly Diamonds”, and he is currently working on a fifth, “Deadly Odds”. www.johndobbyn.com
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