About Writing, Reading

Enjoy the Silence

One of the downsides of being an English teacher is having to read the same text over and over again. I taught at least one Shakespeare text every year for the entire 25 years of my career, more often several, since I frequently taught our Shakespeare elective.

Yet that repetition was also one of the best things about teaching English. It gave me a chance to revel in Shakespeare’s use of nuanced language. A scene can turn on a single word. It gave me a chance to appreciate secondary characters often overshadowed by the major characters and ignored by scholars. (Hello? Emilia in Othello. She’s so underrated.”

Shakespeare is rarely silent, since silence is typically not good for theater. He’s all words, words, words.

Now Poe, on the other hand, is the master of silence. If Shakespeare taught me word choice, Poe taught me the use of silence. What do I mean by that? How can stories be silent?

By what we don’t write.

Those things can work at readers, haunt them. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator cuts up the old man’s body in two sentences. Two. No extended scene of gore, just simple statements. Not only does Poe highlight the madness of the narrator by glossing over dismemberment, he also lets the reader imagine the scene, which is probably more horrific.

The unsaid is incredibly powerful. In “The Cask of Amontillado,” the reader never knows how Fortunato insults Montresor…these characters don’t even have first names. we are left to fill in the details, personalize it, if you will.

Other authors do this, too. In Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” immediately after boasting that he hunts humans, Zaroff asks Rainsford if he wants to go see Zaroff’s new collection of heads. Connell just drops this little bomb and lets the reader mull over the meaning. Rainsford doesn’t;t even react to the idea, which allows readers to wonder if Rainsford is too shocked to note the full meaning…or if he isn’t fazed by the idea.

Later in the story, Rainsford is simply in Zaroff’s room. There’s no belabored explanation of how he swims across the cove, climbs the cliff, and breaks into the guarded mansion. The reader can do that. The same is true of what had to be a horrific fight between the two men. It’s simply skipped.

Many authors do the same thing. And as a writer, I can learn from that. I don’t have to write it all down. I can leave silence in my stories, too. I can allow the reader to fill in the blanks, and it might even be more powerful in the end.

And if you haven’t read these stories since high school, maybe revisit them and see their subtle brilliance.

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