Stillness in fiction
What is stillness?
Why is it important?
How is it used in writing?
We look to Charles Baxter to answer these questions in excerpts from Burning Down the House.
It’s late at night, and you are quarreling with someone on the telephone, long distance. You have reached a stalemate of sorts, where nothing remains to be said. You cannot hang up. But you cannot say anything more. So you remain on the line. Neither of you utters a word. A moment like this stirs the air with an odd and indefinable feeling. It is not like the silence after a quarrel in a room, because AT&T is going to bill you (or the other person) for the silence. This gap—this emotional and technological emptiness—is literally going to cost you.
Sometimes, distantly, you could hear other conversations. Straining not to speak yourself, you might end up eavesdropping on someone’s random casual happiness. You might hear laughter, laughter hundreds of miles away, still faintly audible. The hiss and gurgle and the laughter are the markers of time moving through stillness.
Expressive air-pockets of dead silence. They are theatrical, and relatively easy to manage on film or on stage. But how does anyone get them into fiction, where the flow of words must continue line by line, page by page, until the whole thing stops?
Stillness in fiction arises when the dramatic action pauses, and when the forward movement of thought appears to cease as well. Instead of the forward dramatic line we (at least temporarily) have the absorption of the character into the minutiae of the setting. These dynamics of desire and fear are momentarily displaced by a rapt attention to small details, to the cultivation of a moment’s mood for its own sake without any nervous straining after insight. Stillness is not the same as an epiphany. Attention flows away from what is supposed to command it toward the peripheries: the river, the bank, the trash floating down the river, the sound of the cricket. In a moment of stillness, the atmosphere supplants the action. In these moments, the setting or the character may take on the burden of feeling.
Charles Baxter describes the unique dilemma author's have in representing stillness. Unlike movies or music, the written word cannot literally be silent or motionless. We must use language to invoke these feelings for our readers.
Often in drafting, we writers are concerned only with getting words onto the page. And that's a great place to start! But sometimes we can rush through important, high-intensity moments that deserve more space on the page. There are places in our stories where we need to linger, where we hit the pause button. Here, we can create stillness.
We'll cover two distinct ways authors create stillness in their writing. Both involve, as Baxter describes, attention to the periphery, to small details.
Stillness through setting
Many authors create stillness through setting. They displace focus from the character and the story to what surrounds them. Where is this place? What objects are near? Has something happened here before?
Let's look at a contemporary example to make this point best. We'll consider an excerpt from Tayari Jones' An American Marriage. To start, I can't recommend this book highly enough. It explores the wrongful incarceration of a black man and speaks more broadly to race relations in the United States. It's an extraordinary read.
If you haven't yet read it, here's what you need to know. Narrator Celestial is announcing a controversial engagement over a family dinner. She's still married to another man, who's been serving time for a crime he did not commit. In this scene, there is great uncertainty as to how her family will react to her news.
I felt Gloria studying me. I gazed at her with a question on my lips and she gave me a subtle nod, like she knew what she couldn’t know.
Desert was a blackberry jam cake, a recipe passed to my mother from hers. To have a cake ready to serve on Thanksgiving, you have to bake it on the last day of summer, douse it in rum and seal it away when the fireflies are still thick on the breeze. This dessert figures into my parents’ courtship. Gloria, at the time teaching social studies, offered a crumbling slice to the new chemistry teacher. “I was bewitched!” he claims to this very day.
Gloria placed the cake on the table and the aroma of rum, cloves, and cinnamon rose to meet me. I looked up at her over my shoulder and she said, quietly, “Whatever it is, you know I’ll always be your mother.” I turned my eyes to my plate, to the cake centered on the paper doily and to the tiny spoon balance on the rim. It reminded me of our rehearsal dinner. Roy asked for my mother’s specialty as his groom’s cake. As everyone else ate duck and drank cava, Gloria pulled me outside the restaurant. Standing in the parking lot, beside a fragrant gardenia bush, she pulled me close. I’m happy today because you’re happy. Not because you’re getting married. I don’t care about all the top-shelf details. All I care about is you.” And this was my mother’s blessing. I hoped that she would extend it once more.
Notice that despite the gravity of the situation, the focus displaces to setting. The dinner, the food smells, the tableware. The attention to detail builds suspense by delaying the inevitable: the engagement announcement.
In the meantime, Jones uses the setting details to speak to the conflict indirectly. We zero in on the blackberry jam cake to illuminate Celestial's parents' courtship. We can visualize the balancing spoon and see the precariousness of this moment.
Only a single line of dialogue is spoken in this section. We feel stillness because the passage of time takes up a smaller space than the narration itself.
Stillness through character
Now let's look at a different kind of stillness. Authors can also use character to become still. While setting draws focus to external details, character draws focus inward.
I'll use Susan Choi's Trust Exercise as our example. This is another book I highly recommend, although I will caution that it is a stylistically divisive read. What you should know to orient yourself in this excerpt:
Karen and David previously attended a performing arts high school together. Years later, they've learned about allegations of sexual misconduct against their former drama teacher.
"Do you not believe he slept with his students?” Karen finally asked. Karen had realized there was nothing she could say, at this moment, that wouldn’t shred the jaded unshockable costume she was still somehow wearing, that wouldn’t shred it into rubbery strips. At moments like these, a most useful technique is to ask the other persona question. It shouldn’t be a leading question, but Karen’s question, we admit, had some slant. All we can say is, the room had some slant. I was trying to stay on my barstool. I was trying to remain an old, dear friend of David’s.
“I’m sure he slept with his students. I’m sure they slept with him. They knew what they were doing! We knew what we were doing. Remember what we were like?”
“We were children,” Karen said carefully, as if it were David who ought to be handled with care, David who might be injured by this conversation. But apparently, despite taking precautions, Karen still caused offense. David gave a scornful laugh.
“We were never children,” he said.
Choi's stillness has a much different quality than Jones'. These are all inward-looking details. Karen reflects on herself, her "jaded, unshockable costume." She's exacting her feelings, examining conversational tactics, gauging her history with David. She's focusing on everything except the subject of their conversation: the misconduct allegations.
Notice also the placement of details. The narration delays every line of David's dialogue. We anticipate David's responses alongside Karen. It forces stillness into a scene of great conflict. There's clearly great disparity between Karen and David's perspectives. The stillness here forces both the characters and we the audience to reckon with a grim reality.
Here's an exercise to help you build stillness into your own writing.
1. Spend no more than five minutes writing out a dialogue-only conflict between two characters. The exchange should be five to ten lines in length. Don't be afraid to keep it simple, we'll be building on this as we go.
2. Take a step back from your dialogue. Where do you think the scene is taking place? Choose a likely location but keep it small and familiar. For instance, a kitchen or the family car. Spend no more than ten minutes and list out the details of the setting you chose. Think about the objects, the atmosphere, the sensory details. Your list can have as much or as little detail as you like.
3. Now put the pieces together. Draw from your list of details and fill out the space between the lines of dialogue. Find the places where you want to divert attention away from the conflict and into the setting. Refer back to the Tayari Jones excerpt for inspiration. You can distribute the details and add as much connective tissue as you like. It's up to you!
This exercise is a great structure to learn how to put stillness into your writing. It's a reminder not to rush through conflict. Let your reader sit with the details for awhile. This same exercise can be used for stillness created through character, too:
1. Complete step 1 of the previous exercise.
2. Take a step back from your dialogue. Who are your characters? Create a list for each character and figure out who they are. Not surface level details. Think about what they want, and what their relationship with each other is like. What's their backstory? How did they end up here? Your list can have as much or as little detail as you like.
3. Now put the pieces together. Draw from your list of details and fill out the space between the lines of dialogue. Find the places where you want to divert attention away from the conflict and into the characters. Refer back to the Susan Choi excerpt for inspiration. You can distribute the details and add as much connective tissue as you like. It's up to you!
I hope you learned a little about stillness and can use it in your own writing. I had a great time designing this workshop with Katy. Big thanks to her, Nimrod Journal, and our workshop participants.