How do you write about nothing?
I know how to not write. In fact, I was very good at that in the past, but gratefully not writing is no longer much of an option for me.
I’m not talking about not writing, however. Instead, I am talking about writing scenes where superficially nothing happens, where a character walks through the mundane actions of life. What they are doing is unimportant to them, a robotic response to an overwhelming thought or scenario. There is an astronomic exchange of information and yet no words are spoken.
In a novel or short story, you can have an inner dialogue, revealing the character’s thoughts, but in a film, you have only silence. Sure, there’s always the trusty voiceover, but I personally think that unless the character is recalling a past statement, voiceovers are a crutch. And a voiceover weakens a scene when you compare it with silence.
Think of the last time you were faced with silence in response to something you said or did. Think of the dis-ease (yes, that’s where “disease” comes from) you experienced as you tried to figure out what the other party was thinking. In many of those situations, I bet that shouting would have been preferable to silence.
In an improv class I took—I am sorry that this is my version of “This one time, in band camp…”—we were doing a status exercise wherein one character would try to take status away from the other one, proving themselves superior through statement or action. While many student pairs would do their best to out-pompous, out-preen or out-bravado each other, I took a different tack. I went completely silent.
No matter what my partner said or did, I faced him stoically or indifferently, deigning to give him the merest glance on occasion while going about my activities. And the louder or larger he got, the less I minded or acknowledged him. The more he talked, the weaker he appeared.
Silence is powerful. And even if the silence is due to idiocy, it comes across as thoughtfulness.
Think of scenes in movies where a character has chosen to deal with a problem by thinking about it. With a good actor, you can see all the thoughts as they play out in his or her mind. The body, the face, the eyes tell you all you need to know about the emotional swells washing through the actor. A single word breaks that tension and weakens the moment. As a storyteller, why would you ever give that up?
Which brings me back to my original question: How do you write nothing?
Perhaps I am delving too far into the domains of the director and actor, but there has to be a way to ensure both those artists know what you, the writer, intend. But I’ll be damned if I know how.
So, I open the question to you, my fellow artists.
What do you do, what have you learned, what have you seen that tells you how to write nothing and yet convey a world of thought and feeling?
Please share your thoughts here as I can’t be the only one who wants to know.