28 April 2013

Silence, Subtext and Unreliable Narrators

As I walked into a small shop a few days ago, I overheard part of a conversation between the store owner and a person at the counter. The customer asked about someone they were thinking of employing. 

The owner hesitated for the briefest of moments before giving a pleasant, but non-committal response.

The hesitation said everything. The polite words spoken without any enthusiasm merely confirmed my initial reaction. I wouldn't employ the person they were discussing.

As I came out of the shop I thought about that exchange as a writer. 

Dialogue is vital in writing. It should do at least one of the following things:
  • Advance the plot
  • Deepen understanding of the character
  • Create or advance conflict and suspense. 

Silence, or a pause that is slightly longer than it should, can often tell us far more than conversation. Why is the character silent? Is it because they don't have an answer, or because they don't want to tell what they know? 

Is it a comfortable silence, or does the person act awkwardly and out of character? Does another character rush to fill the silence with chatter?  What questions would go unanswered, or be answered ambiguously or untruthfully?

Silence can also heighten tension, especially when it's obvious one character knows something, but isn't telling. Does the reader know the answer, or are they being kept in the dark as well?

If used well, silence can do the same job as dialogue in expanding plot, deepening character and creating suspense or questions. 

Subtext is the content hidden under dialogue, and is a good way to show the relationship between characters. For example, Sally and Jane have had a disagreement at work. They sit at adjacent desks, but have been working silently since the disagreement. Then Jane says she is going to buy coffee and a muffin from the cafe along the road, and asks Sally if she would like anything. Neither mentions the disagreement, but the offer of coffee and a muffin is subtext for an apology, or at least a request to forget the disagreement. Subtext is often used between people who know each other well, although a group of people may use it to laugh at someone outside of their group. 

Another way that dialogue can keep the reader guessing is by using an unreliable narrator. I recently finished Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and without giving away too much of the plot, as you read further into the book you begin to realise that what you are being told is not necessarily the whole truth. 

A narrator may be unreliable because they are deliberately misleading you, or it could be because they don't fully understand the situation. An excellent example of this is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime by Mark Haddon.  The narrator is fifteen-year old Christopher Boone, who has behavioral difficulties. Because of this and his age, there are scenes which he doesn't understand, but which the reader does. 

Christopher gets into trouble because he doesn't understand other people, or subtext. An example of the type of subtext he wouldn't get is, 'Can you open the window?' To Christopher this is a question about his abilities, but we know he is being asked to open the window.

Using an unreliable narrator isn't something you can decide to do halfway through a manuscript, at least not without a lot of rewriting, but it makes for an interesting read when used well. 

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