The quiet bits

It seems that I struggle with the quiet bits.

The loud sections – action and combat and chaos – I don’t do too bad on, though I do say so myself. But for too long I’ve ignored the mumbles of discontent; the one critic (writing group buddy) who always seems to say that I handle the in-between bits less effectively.

Now, however, I have to face up to my flaws. I have third-party criticism that backs up the complainant, that holds the guilty verdict. I don’t handle quiet scenes as well.

This strikes me as a little bewildering as the reflective scenes I enjoy. I don’t think I rush them. I value their presence. I’ve gone on Twitter, no less, to say how important they are for me. So why the disconnect?

Quiet scenes – the reflection, the description, the background noise – matter greatly. They give emotional resonance, they give the characters time to breath, to be, to come alive.

To quantify the issue a little, I’m really talking about the third novel of my Antarctic trilogy here and that’s a kind of unique situation. There’s a lot of deliberate ambiguity in the worldbuilding. There’s a character who’s got mental issues (he’s described as a borderline sociopath, but really it’s childhood trauma that’s at the root of his problems). And, though I should be selling him from a reader’s perspective – so that doesn’t excuse my authorial failings – I’ve consequently written him as a cold, difficult person. I didn’t do this deliberately; it just happened that I inhabited him in that way.

So that’s the context, but not the solution. The solution is to listen to my complainants and see what can be done about it. For it’s not too late for me; I can still improve the novel and fill in the gaps; feed the scenes a nutrient-rich prose that well help bring alive both my characters and the world. I can also see if this criticism follows me other to other projects or if it’s specific to this trilogy.

I want to be good at what I do. I want to play the quiet notes as well as I play the loud.

It’s also a lesson in listening. As I said, I had a critic for ages, but it’s easy to think of a single voice as somehow aberrant. When you get more than one person chiming up, however, it’s time to go back to school.

I’m lucky I have intelligent people around me to help me make these changes.

Loud QUIET loud

I’ve hit a high-point in my work-in-progress. A fight-scene, a climax (although not the climax). But I’m not going to talk about that today. Climaxes run on breathless instinct. It’s the bits in between that take the thought, the effort – and that ultimately decide whether a novel works.

People need to be able to breathe. No successful novel runs from action to action without the occasional pause for reflection; even non-stop thrillers take time for the odd cup of tea, often sprinkled with cake and light exposition. These are the bits where the story happens; as well as moving the plot they also deepen the reader’s knowledge of the characters and builds a bond between them. Sure, the reader may enjoy the exploits of your gun-totin’, wise-crackin’ bad-ass superspy. But she’ll be just another disposable hero unless you show her in the aftermath of an exploit – we need to share her fears, joys and depths if we’re gonna care if she lives or dies.

But quiet scenes are hard. It’s hard to know how much to give away, how long to wallow in remorse or mindless chatter or in her strange fascination with morris-dancing. Even scenes where people are just talking need to have a point. They need to deliver, they need to move the plot along: action scenes are a release of tension; the quiet ones are about slowly cranking the handle, about tightening the noose.

They’re hard, yes, but I also really enjoy writing them. They’re a challenge. They give a novel its shape and rhythm, keep coherence amidst all the noise and chaos. They’re what a novel is. For every high must come a low. Every held breath must be exhaled. Roller-coasters go up as well as down.

But writing manuals always seems to focus on the big moments: climax, mid-novel crisis, inciting incident, defeating the gatekeeper – whatever the author chooses to call them. All the literature is about where they go and their significance to the Story. They all seem to overlook the bits that glue everything together and give the big moments their weight.

I love writing action, probably because I spent my teenage years soaking up the thrills of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series. It’s the bits In Between that I find difficult.

But maybe they’re not so different after all, the quiet scenes and the loud. After all, both are all about knowing your characters, knowing precisely why you’re writing a particular scene – what is the point of showing it in your novel? Both are about moving story forwards: it’s only in the way those things are depicted that differs.

Tension. It’s all about tension. Whatever genre you’re writing, the quiet scenes are where you crank the handle, where you stretch the reader on the rack and make it impossible for them to escape. The loud ones are when all that stress explodes.