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You Don't Say

August 15, 2011 Writing 11 Comments



Robin Black

So, here is a writing exercise it might be fun to try.  (And arguably the best part is that there’s no actual writing involved.)

For one hour, during a time when you are with at least one other person, keep track of everything you think, but do not say.  Better yet, since thinking about what you’re thinking about requires the kind of mental contortion that may result in a brain sprain, at some point,after you have been around other people, try to remember a few of the things you were thinking but did not say.

That’s step one.  Step two is to make an honest appraisal of which was more interesting, what you did say or what you didn’t say?  Which revealed more about your true character? Which carried in it more potential for drama?  Which exposed more about what was actually going on between you and the other people?

Yeah. I thought so.

Step three? Go reread your own fiction and ask yourself whether what goes unspoken is playing a large enough role in your work.

One of the joys of fiction that’s obvious but maybe not marveled at enough is the magical access a reader is given to the inner lives of other people – albeit make-believe ones.  Among fiction writers the subject of this access most often arises in the context of (endless) conversations about and treatises on the subject of point of view.  Which point of view allows an author to share the thoughts of how many characters? How does all of that work? How do you change points of view within a single scene? What the heck is narrative distance? And so on. (And on and on. . .) And I for one am a bit of a point of view junkie, or maybe I mean a point of view nerd. I love those discussion, love the strategizing and love exploring the implications of all those choices.

But what at times gets lost in the conversation, the forest obscured by all those many, many trees, is this simple fact: fiction allows us to have unlimited access to the thoughts of other people.  There are limitless possibilities! Yet the thoughts that appear in fiction are often quite limited. And in some sense they are too tied to the dialogue in a scene.  All too often once we set one character in conversation with another, we forget about the conversation that character is having with herself.  And the fact is, it’s very often that conversation that contains all the really juicy stuff.  And it’s the juicy stuff that reveals character.  And revealing character is something that we all want to do.

There’s another benefit too to a fictional wandering mind.  Including a character’s thoughts can render dialogue looser by introducing other strands, taking away that artificial call-and-response quality that fictional dialogue too often has.

The very best critique I ever received of my dialogue was:  These people say exactly what they mean too much. I didn’t take that to mean that people are all duplicitous most of the time, but that there is a wealth of tension to be found in the discrepancy between what a character says and what’s really on her mind. And tension, in fiction, is wealth indeed.

So here are three exercises to try the next time you want to add some layers of complexity to a scene and a character both.  Oh and the examples here are not offered as great literature, but just to give some sense about how much more layered a scene can be when there are thoughts that go unspoken on the page.

1. Have your point of view character explicitly think of saying something but decide against it:

“For a moment, Eleanor imagined herself telling him about having burned the stew, but he seemed so happy sitting there with his drink and his anticipatory smile.  ”Do you think we should dress for dinner?” she asked instead. “We never do anymore.”

2. Have a character’s mind wander so she loses track of the conversation at hand:

While Cynthia continued to talk on and on about the argument she’d had with the roofer, Estelle tried to remember the name of the little shop where she had bought her boots the year before.  It had sounded like a nursery rhyme. Mother Goose Shoes. Or Little Lamb Shoes.  Something like that, but not either of those.

“I have no idea if I was even right,” Cynthia said. “But I gave up trying to be reasonable about ten minutes in.”

“I’m sure you were right,” Estelle answered, though of course she had stopped paying attention long ago.  “You’re usually right.”

3. Have a character keep up a running internal critique of the conversation without missing a beat in the actual dialogue.

“Friends don’t let friends buy skunks,” George said, and Maria cringed inside at the pun.

“Not around here they don’t,” she said.

“Buy skunks,” he repeated, grinning from ear to ear.

What a moron. Did he think she hadn’t heard it or hadn’t gotten his joke?

“Nope,” she said. “Friends do not let friends buy skunks. That’s a good one, George.”


With each exercise, ask yourself whether more was revealed about the character (and also about the relationship between the two characters) by what was said or by what wasn’t said. And remember, a character’s thoughts don’t have to be 100% engaged in the conversation at hand. In fact, it’s very often better if they’re allowed to wander a bit – as our thoughts so often do. One of the great strengths of fiction is its associative quality, precisely because so much of our thinking is itself associative. We make connections that aren’t always logical or obvious.  And there’s no reason that our characters can’t have minds that jump around in that manner too.

There are a million – or more – other ways to play with trying to capture the unspoken on the page. Write a scene in which one character has a secret they are dying to divulge but can’t.  Write another in which one character has OCD and
is counting how many syllables the other character uses in every sentence.  Write one in which a character is trying hard not to think about something – but can’t help herself.

Or, as I started by saying, start by keeping track of everything you don’t say the next time you find yourself in conversation. And go on from there. . .


Currently there are "11 comments" on this Article:

  1. Since I’ve been in a long character-development-mood as of late, this article was right up my proverbial alley. Thanks so much! Bookmarking; done. ch:

    • Robin Black Robin Black says:

      No higher praise than a bookmark! I’m really glad this was helpful to you and thanks for letting me know!

      • Honored. But it’s not lip service, to be sure; I’m in the middle of my first book for my next trilogy (going all self-pub; finished all my legacy contracts and diving in). I’ve had this nagging feeling about the characters, like they’re not saying enough, but that it didn’t have to do with dialog. Now I get it. It’s now what they say…

        You rock. ch:

      • Cheral says:

        Thank you Robin Black, you rock! I, too, have bookmarked!

  2. Jana says:

    This is an amazingly helpful post, a true gift for any aspiring writer of fiction. Thank you!

  3. Michele Shaw says:

    Great post! My characters are always having internal dialogue. It’s something I’ve received praise for, though initially, I wasn’t sure if it worked. I’ve since discovered, it’s just part of my style, so there’s really no turning back now! Thanks for the boost!

  4. Dell Smith Dell Smith says:

    Great post, and great advice. Reading this reminded me of a scene I’ve been working on recently where the main character is talking to her sister. She just saw the boyfriend of the sister (the secondary character in the scene) cheating. And I was struggling with how to move the story along while also trying to show how this crazy new (to the character) information affected her, internally (should she tell her sister? Was it really her boyfriend? Are they even together any more?). You’ve given me some great ideas to take another swat at it.

  5. […] Black also writes eloquently about character and dialogue at Beyond the Margins in a post called You Don’t Say. Black points out that fiction’s real appeal is that it allows us to have unlimited access to […]

  6. […] author Robin Black: the importance of what we don’t say in good […]

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Robin Black

Robin Black
Robin Black's new novel LIFE DRAWING is forthcoming from Random House, July, 2014, and Picador UK, April 2014. It has been called "a magnificent literary achievement," by Karen Russell, and "a riveting story about the corrosive effects of betrayal," by Alice Sebold. Her story collection IF I LOVED YOU, I WOULD TELL YOU THIS, was published by Random House in 2010 to international acclaim by publications such as O. Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, The Irish Times and more. Robin lives in the Philadelphia area with her family. Read Full