Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Learning To Whisper

What I like in a good author is not what he says, but what he whispers. ~Logan Pearsall Smith, "All Trivia," Afterthoughts, 1931

I’ll confess that much as I would like to sound incredibly erudite, I’d never heard of Logan Pearsall Smith until I read this quote. Having read it, I’m of two minds about it.

The reason I’m of two minds about it is that I have a tendency to “whisper” in writing, something that I’m sure will surprise a lot of people who have met me in person (i.e. who’ve been exposed to the woman who needs not microphones) as well as a lot of people who have read me – in person or not. But what you see in my books is not always what comes naturally. Naturally, I have a tendency to elide a lot of the emotion and what I would call “the embarrassing stuff.” My style of narrating is to assume the reader already knows a lot of this and it doesn’t need to be emphasized. That, as I’ve learned, is wrong. There is such a thing, yes, as keeping a stiff upper lip, and it is very important in a human, but not always in a writer. Since readers read for the emotion, the stiff upper lip undercuts the power of the writing.

On the other hand, there is a way of whispering in writing – there are the things not said, but which come across just fine. This is a higher type of writing, and one that I frankly don’t know if I can do. I try, but it’s hard to judge, with your own work, whether you landed perfectly or fell on your face. Only the reader can tell.

This type of whispering is subtle and haunting. It’s the little things about the character and the world that remain in your mind, sometimes years later, the little things that aren’t always stated, but that you return to, are sure of, wish were written about.

Entire websites full of stories echo with Jane Austen’s whisperings, particularly in Pride and Prejudice. “Did other people know what they were feeling better than they did? When did he realize he loved her?” Etc. The same goes for Georgette Heyer. Most of the sexual tension in her romances is never even mentioned. Take Venitia, one of my very favorites – they joke, they recite poetry, they make repartee sometimes on risque subjects, but there’s no kissing, no fondling, nothing beyond an embrace and that at the end. However, the sexual tension is scorching. How much more powerful does it make the book than the modern romances which tell me what went where and how many times, sometimes with shocking anatomical improbability? Then there is Heinlein. Take The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. Nowhere does the main character tell us he’s fallen in love with Wyoming Knott. Except it’s in everything he says about her, and how he says it, so when she marries into the family and ends up in his bed before the trip to Earth, it’s expected. It’s been whispered throughout the book, even though explicitly they’ve done nothing more than flirt. And there’s Pratchett. Most of the romances, like in Making Money and the relationship between Sam Vimes and his wife. But more than that, there are hints about Nobby Nobs that you honestly don’t want to think too deeply about.

But it is those whispers, those less-brightly-illuminated scenes that give the book the feel of roundness, of completeness. Look, if you walk down a well lighted street, you expect to pass boarded up stores, and others that are dark and alleys that you only see the opening to. If those are truncated, not there, you know the street is a fake, a Hollywood scene made of painted boards with nothing behind it. At the same time, if al those side avenues are brightly illuminated, you get dazzled, stop paying attention to where you’re going, and get lost in a side street. Or, to make the metaphor more consistent – if you hear only one loud, clear voice, you feel like there is no one there, just perhaps an electronic simulation of a human voice. As – in TMIAHM – Heinlein noted, behind a real human voice there are other sounds. Breathing. Adjusting yourself in the chair. A door slamming somewhere.

We don’t consciously hear them, but they are there, and they convince us this person is real. Of course, in the same way, you don’t want them to be so loud they drown out the voice.

You see the point and the dilemma? It’s something I’m trying to learn, as I said, but I’m not sure if I can, except by studying those who’ve done it well and learning to imitate. And you? Do you know who does it well? Do I even explain what I mean clearly enough for you to understand?

I hope I do. I want to catch your attention, and I hope I’m learning to whisper.

Crossposted at According To Hoyt


MataPam said...

I think it's the backgrounds, the worlds that whisper. Knowledge imparted without our realizing we were learning something.

Your stuff, Sarah? Oh yes, it sticks in the back of the mind. This odd feeling that I'd recognize 17th century Paris. That I don't ever want to strip and refinish furniture. And genetic engineering in the hands of tyrants? Yikes. That's even scarier than teenagers getting ahold of it.

Bruce H. Johnson said...

We writers need to enable the reader to contribute to the story. This means he can mock up his own "reality" or picture of what's happening.

This enagages him, sucks him in, and enables him to create his own reality which is more real to him than the one the writer projects.

Too much detail, description, etc., prevents that. Now you have a reader slogging through the story as only a spectator rather than being part of it.

The whispers encourages him to be part of the game.

Go write something great.

Brendan said...

I am a big believer in the idea that "less is more". This makes me think of good horror short stories where you are never told the protagonist is scared but it comes across in the way he/she views the world. A small push towards the macabre in description and we know a person's state of mind is disturbed.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Thank you. And yes, I love the "Heinleining" as world building. But I'm only now learning to throw in hints and clues about other stuff. This is a Loooooong ramp up.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Yes, the whispers give just enough to think there's something there and let the reader fill in the rest. Do you know it took me till I was published to realize there really was no need to control EVERYTHING the reader saw.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Yes, hinted at horror is SO much scarier than one in which every splatter and drop of blood is described, isn't it?
And yes, a lot can be shown through the protagonist's feelings and even through the similes that come to his/her mind. Quite the difference between "The room was red like a bowl of tomato soup" and "the room was red like spilled blood."

Kate Paulk said...

Those whispers are part of what leaves you thinking about the book weeks, months, even years after you read it.

Not that I have any idea how to do it, yet, but I can tell the difference between someone else's book that has it and someone else's book that doesn't.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I think you did it Impaler and ConVent.

Synova said...

Is everyone okay?

Amanda Green said...

Synova, Blogger has been MIA and part of the "fix" has been to remove posts made after Wednesday evening as well as comments. This has been across their entire program. We will be migrating this blog in the next day or so to a new site. Hopefully, it will be more seamless than this upgrade and roll-back that Blogger's been doing.

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