When I read my first Jack Reacher novel (61 hours, by Lee Child), one phrase struck me. It’s in every Reacher novel, sprinkled sparingly into the prose like a subtle spice.
Reacher said nothing.
Usually it’s in the midst of tense dialogue, at a point where nineteen out of twenty people, and thus most readers, would have said something. But Jack Reacher held his tongue. Not because he was afraid to speak, quite the reverse. It made me, as a reader, re-evaluate what I would have said, and come to the conclusion that Jack was right, it was better not to speak at this point.
It’s a nifty technique in dialogue, where most authors are looking for the snappy reply. And it’s bloody economical. But most of all it engages the reader, and leaves the reader feeling respect for the man, because his silence speaks volumes.
It’s also better than the usual stock phrases, such as ‘he paused a beat,’, or ‘he decided not to speak,’ etc., because it’s strongly – and somewhat oddly – affirmative, because he said something, and that something was absolutely nothing. It forces you to listen to the silence, and wonder what could have filled it, what he’s thinking but not saying, and why. Like I said, a nifty little phrase.
I began using it in the Nadia novels, and kept it mainly for her, but other characters borrowed it occasionally.
And now I find I’m using it again in the latest novel, The Dead Can Lie, particularly with Greg, who is something of a broken character. Last night (and I’m writing this blog at 4am, so maybe it’s still last night?) I re-edited a conversation between him and his boss, Donaldson. The original version was quite a long conversation, but it was a little too predictable. So I decided to employ the silence trick, and played around with it. I think it works. So here’s a short section. You don’t need to know anything about either character, except that Greg has kept his boss in the dark about something important, and then has gone and screwed up big time, and is now confessing all to Donaldson, which means he could get fired and taken off the case to track down his wife’s killer…
Greg phoned Donaldson. Told him about Fergus. The call, the visit, exactly what had happened.
Donaldson said nothing. So much nothing, Greg wondered if he was still listening. But every now and again he could just about hear the big man’s breathing, getting heavier. Greg talked some more. Full disclosure. And then he stopped.
When he did speak, Donaldson’s voice was iron. ‘Give me one good reason – ’
Greg told him about the Russian Roulette.
Greg felt like shit. ‘If you want me off the case –’
‘You weren’t reinstated, remember?’
‘I know. Look, Potter could bring Fergus in for –’
‘Don’t tell me what to do. I tell you what to do. That’s the way this works. That’s the only way this works.’ Donaldson sighed, and Greg imagined him pinching the bridge of his nose, rubbing his face in his pudgy hands. ‘I’m going to overlook this, for Kate. But if there’s one more –‘
Greg needed this. ‘There won’t be.’
‘You do realise you’ve potentially contaminated a witness? If this Fergus is somehow involved, it’ll be a shit-storm in court when the defence counsel learns what you did. I won’t even ask you what you were thinking, because clearly you weren’t.’
Greg’s turn to say nothing.
The original conversation was several pages long. Like I said earlier, this ‘saying nothing’ is very economical. And the reader doesn’t need the details anyway, because the reader already knows what Greg did, and understands why, though maybe not realising the full potential consequences at the time.
In writer’s terms, it’s a neat inversion of the rule known as ‘show don’t tell.’ Like every golden rule in writing, it needs to be broken every now and again.
Hats off to Lee Child for showing the way.