One of the most important things a writer can learn to use is her silence. -Kelsie Engen
In music, the hardest thing to play are the rests. Likewise, the hardest things to write are those which must remain unwritten.
A large portion of a novel, and an even greater part of a short story, should remain unwritten by the author. An author may perform a great deal of research in order to craft a believable world or plot, or to learn about their characters’ professions. However, the majority of that information will not be needed by the reader. The same is true of a character’s backstory, most of which remains unexpressed or hinted at throughout a novel.
But there are additional elements of a novel that are best left unwritten, some of which I have outlined below.
What Should Remain Unwritten?
As I stated above, a character’s backstory should be one of those elements that remains mostly unexplored upon the pages of the novel.
Backstory is the character’s past–whatever happened before the story you’re writing. Like your main character’s (MC’s) childhood, or even the yesterday before the opening chapter of your book. That’s all backstory which, without good reason pertaining to plot or character development, should not enter the story.
This history can and should be hinted at throughout the pages of the novel, but only that which explicitly pertains to the story at hand should be related or discussed in the pages of a novel.
Practice this: Write a 500-word scene heavy in backstory. Now go back through and delete all the backstory. Reread it, and add back in only that which is absolutely necessary. Reread it again, or give it to someone else to read. Now how important was that backstory after all?
Subtext, according to Oxford Dictionaries is “An underlying and often distinct theme in a piece of writing or conversation.”
Personally, I don’t care for that definition as it pertains to a novel. A more apt definition of subtext is: reading between the lines. In real life, a conversation between two people may, to an outsider listening in, be about one thing but mean something completely different to those two conversing.
Most commonly this happens between couples, or roommates, or those in a close quarters relationship. In a marriage, for example, an argument about closing the toilet seat may actually be about how John was flirting with the waitress at dinner that evening.
In a novel, the subtext would be leaving the true reason for Jane’s anger at John unspoken between them. Perhaps the scene is written in all dialogue, where the two argue about the toilet seat being open. The reader reads the argument like a tennis volley, back-forth, back-forth, as John and Jane spit words at one another, then Jane leaves the house in a huff, never to come back.
Subtext is what creates the tension in that scene. Maybe Jane never tells John what she’s really upset about, but says something like, “This is just like you–you never care about anyone but yourself. I’ve had it, I’m gone.”
If the author is employing subtext, the real issue(s) should never be explicit, but hinted upon.
Subtext can also be the underlying emotion in a scene that a character doesn’t express, most often anger or love. Perhaps Jane is in love with John but doesn’t know how to tell him. “I enjoy watching you paint,” she says instead of, “I’m in love with you and I don’t know how to tell you.”
Practice this: Using the last thing you were angry at your significant other (or roommate or sibling) over, write a scene where a little thing sets you and him/her into an explosive argument–leaving the true reason unsaid.
A beginning writer (and many more practiced writers, myself included) will often use phrases such as “John walked in the room,” or “Jane stood up and looked at John.”
The above phrases are tiresome, boring writing which are called “stage direction.” Think of stage direction as those instructions you see in a Shakespeare play: “Enter Romeo,” or “To Juliet.”
Stage direction in itself is plain writing, and there are much betters way to insert the same information. “John burst into the room, his eyes ablaze with the fire of passion.” Or “Jane rose, brushing the crumbs of her lunch from her lap and lifted her gaze to John.” The verbs I use here are only a bit more sophisticated, but interspersed as they are with description and setting, they become less stage direction and more description.
Common verbs found in stage direction are: looked, saw, gazed, stood, walked, sighed, entered, said, etc.
So leave the stage directions for the plays, and weave description into your sentences. Your reader will be thankful for it.
Practice this: Take a page from your WIP first draft and rewrite all the “looked,” “saw,” “gazed,” etc. out of it by inserting stronger verbs and more description (or dialogue which portrays more than the weak verbs).
One more Silence…
Every period, every comma, every semi-colon, every colon, every exclamation point, every question mark, every quotation mark, every italic, every capitalization has a different sort of emphasis.
Think about it. How did you read the last paragraph? Breathlessly? How about the next sentence (Think about it.)? Did it give you a break? What about all these questions? Are they exhausting you?
Every writer uses punctuation differently.
One of my writing teachers has made it a point to give his students lessons of passages from books with all punctuation and capitalization removed. Some students hate these exercises, but I see the value in them. First of all, I realize that there is no “right” answer for these exercises. My punctuating of these passages will give different emphasis based on how I read a jumble of train-of-thought words. Every person reads the text different, and no two answers are going to be identical.
Every writer is unique to themselves, and as such will never ever write a passage the exact same way as another author–even with the exact same words.
Use your own special silences. Learn when to stay silent and when to speak.
Like this post? Please give it a share! Your contribution means a lot to me, and helps me to know what resonates with my readers.