Revising Leah

September 3, 2008

How to Speak Without Saying a Word (Things I Like #3)

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 2:32 pm
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When should a character speak, and when should they just shut up? When I write dialogue, I sometimes tend to get a little chatty, and I put words in my characters’ mouths that are off topic — that don’t really have anything to do with anything. I can correct such off-topic rambling during the revision stage, of course, but when I’m writing the first draft of a story, and I have two or more characters in a scene together, I feel compelled to let them talk to each other, just as two people in the real world might be compelled to speak to each other.

I like to write dialogue, but Leah is a story that, due to the personality of the main character, doesn’t have a lot of dialogue in it. So writing and revising this novel has actually taught me a lot about using dialogue sparingly and trying to get the most out of as few words as possible. It has also shown me how powerful silence can be both in terms of character creation and plot development.

My favorite passage of dialogue in the entire story comes at the end of the longest chapter of the novel (currently chapter 16). In this chapter, Leah and her partners from history class gather at David’s house on the Sunday before their Egypt presentation is due. They are hoping to put their reports on video so that they won’t have to stand in front of the class and deliver their entire presentation. I like the chapter, and it stands out from the rest of the novel in a couple of ways. First, it’s by far the longest chapter in the story — more than twice as long as most of the other chapters. Second, it’s a chapter that is filled with dialogue — so much that it almost reads like a one-act play. Towards the end of the chapter, as Leah and her partners are waiting for their rides to take them home, Leah has a brief “conversation” with David’s mother. It’s a scene that reveals a lot about the true nature of Leah and David’s relationship:

Heather and Melanie were the first to leave. A gray car pulled up to the house. Leah, the only person looking out the window when the car arrived, was the first to see it, but she didn’t say anything to the others. After half a minute, Melanie noticed the car and said, “C’mon Heather, there’s your mom.” Heather looked out the window and then said goodbye to David. She yelled a thank you to Mrs. Parks in the kitchen for allowing them to use the house that afternoon. Mrs. Parks emerged from the kitchen and said goodbye. Melanie and Heather, with their reports in hand, walked out the door. Leah watched them through the window and felt relieved to see Heather go. When their car drove away, Mrs. Parks said to her son, “David, I want you to go into the kitchen and clean up your mess.”

“OK,” he said reluctantly, and he marched off to the kitchen. Leah stood there, disappointed, for she hoped she might have a chance to talk with David alone, but now she wouldn’t.

A minute later, Alex’s ride arrived. He shouted a goodbye to David who responded in kind. As Alex gathered his posters and the box with his camcorder inside, Mrs. Parks helped him by holding the front door open. When he was gone, she closed the door.

Left alone in the foyer with Leah, David’s mother stared at the silent girl for a moment and then asked, “What’s your name again?”

“Leah.”

“Are you one of Heather’s friends?”

Leah shook her head no.

“Just a classmate then?”

She nodded.

“That’s what I thought. I didn’t think I remembered David ever mentioning a girl named Leah.”

Silence.

“What was all that shouting I heard down here a while ago?” Mrs. Parks asked. “My husband and I could hear it all the way upstairs.”

Leah shrugged. “David and Heather had an argument.”

“Oh,” the woman said. “You certainly weren’t yelling, though. You don’t say much, do you?”

Leah shrugged again.

Mrs. Parks glanced at something out the window. “Is that your ride?” she asked.

Leah looked and saw her mother’s car. “Yes.” She opened the door and started to leave.

David must have heard the door open because he shouted, “Bye, Leah,” from the kitchen.

“Goodbye,” Leah replied, but her voice wasn’t very strong, and she didn’t know if David heard her. She exited the house and gently shut the door behind her.

As usual, Leah doesn’t contribute much to her half of a conversation, but while she doesn’t use a lot of words, she does communicate with gestures (nodding her head or shrugging her shoulders).  There’s one moment, though, when Mrs. Parks innocently mentions that David has never spoken about Leah, and Leah responds only with Silence. She doesn’t speak or gesture or communicate at all. That is my favorite line in this passage because that Silence perhaps says more than any other word or gesture could ever say. In that silence so many things might be occurring, and the silence allows me to leave it up to the reader’s imagination to “fill in the blank” — to speculate and guess what Leah is thinking at that moment. There’s nothing that I, as the author, could have the character say or do at that moment that would be more powerful than to have her say and do nothing but silently ponder the unintended significance of what Mrs. Parks has revealed to Leah: that David has never mentioned Leah to his family and perhaps doesn’t think about Leah at all outside of history class.

So, for those of you writing your own stories, keep in mind that moments of silence from your characters (even characters who are a lot chattier than Leah) can be just as powerful as even the most eloquent statement.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] At David’s House […]

    Pingback by Playing with Chapter Subtitles « Revising Leah — February 12, 2009 @ 3:46 pm


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