The other day on Twitter, I saw an author ask “If a character has nothing to say to another character, should the author write that the character said nothing or let the lack of dialogue speak for itself?”
To me, the answer is obvious. Tell the reader that the character had nothing to say. If you attempt to make the reader tease this out from the lack of dialogue, you risk confusing the reader. I could imagine myself reading the dialogue, expecting the character to respond as she fidgets with her hair, when suddenly the other character is speaking again. Now I have to re-read the last couple lines to make sure I didn’t miss something.
It was never explicitly mentioned, but I know why one would avoid writing ‘but said nothing’: the dreaded ‘show, don’t tell’ maxim.
If you’ve followed my blog long enough, you know that I hate this pernicious piece of ‘advice’. It’s a fine rule of thumb that has been inexplicably granted all the authority of sacred writ by many in the Writing Community. Showing is fine, it’s good. You need to have showing in your books or it will read like See Spot Run.
But it’s supposed to be a happy medium, a principle applied with judicious prudence. If you try to show too much, you can end up with purple prose or passages that confuse your readers. Sometimes, you just gotta tell the reader what’s going on.
This also ties into the industrial chainsaw that some people take to manuscripts. It’s imperative to chop out bits and words that aren’t necessary, that much is certain. But my God, ‘but said nothing’ is three measly words. Even if your character is left speechless a dozen times in your manuscript, that comes out to less than forty ‘superfluous’ words. Hardly cause for concern, you would think.
Nevertheless, I saw responses extolling authors to cut out that pesky phrase, even if it’s just three little words.
To wrap this up, I want to share with you the litmus test I run on all such pieces of advice: is this something I ever cared about as a reader only?
I loved the Redwall books growing up, and those are stuffed to the gills with adverbs. I’ve read The Lord of the Rings at least a dozen times through and I still savor every unnecessary word and song.
So would I have ever cared that an author told me the character said nothing? Upon reading those words, would I have thought “Harrumph, I wish the author hadn’t told me that. I could have seen it for myself based on the lack of dialogue!” My answer is no, I never would have cared about something like this.
What about you? How do you feel about this phrase or others? Please feel free to disagree in the comments below! I’d love to hear your opinion 🙂