The Rest is Silence . . . Or Is It?

“The rest is silence” is perhaps the most famous of the famous last words uttered by a fictional character, but the rest wasn’t silent because Horatio and Prince Fortinbras kept talking after Hamlet died. I’ve always found that kind of amusing but it also made me think about the nature of silence.

Authors are always told to engage all the senses of the reader. One sense that can be enhanced in fiction is hearing. Not the reader hearing characters talking to each other or the overt sounds that characters’ make or hear. Authors have that kind of hearing down pat.

Often characters experience silence–as in a conversation stopper, or a stunned silence, or just enjoying silence in a room or in nature. The phrase “silence is golden” is said to date from Ancient Egypt and was translated from German by Thomas Carlyle for his novel, Sartar Resartus, in which a character expounds on the virtues of silence. More telling is that we tend to shorten it from a longer phrase: “speech is silver; silence is golden.” So if we want to think about it in terms of enriching a scene, if speech is silver, then the greater value of silence can be exploited to enhance the interaction between characters or a character with her environment.

When I take a break from work, I like to walk around the yard and I always marvel at the silence of where I live–kind of on the edge of town with little traffic and a creek that draws birds and other critters, and all the cats, most of them feral and living in their secret nooks and crannies. But then the silence becomes even more magical when isolated sounds come through–a dog bark, a bird call, another bird calling, a scampering squirrel, a cat fight, a school bell in the distance, a turkey gobble, the rattle of a bicycle, a car rolling several blocks away, a mumble of voices from somewhere, the underlying rumble of traffic on the busy highway between San Francisco and Sacramento.

I feel like I’m a part of a secret world of sounds–muted, isolated, clear, unexpected. I’m reminded that silence isn’t really silence, it’s just not talking or moving around and making noise. And the peace that people experience from having a silent moment–whether in nature or relaxing inside–often comes from the noises they’re suddenly able to hear because they get caught up in the magic of a world that’s always around them but they never take the time hear.

John Cage wrote a composition entitled 4′33″. It’s for any instrument or any combination of instruments. The score instructs the performers not to play during the three movements of the work. In other words, just sit in silence for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The work is also known as Silence. But it’s anything but silent. The purpose is for the audience to become aware of the noises around them and these noises are actually the performance.

I’ve sat through several performances of 4’33″ through the years and have enjoyed watching the audience as they gradually get into the spirit of the performance and cock their heads or look around as they hear the sounds coming from different parts of the hall. The lucky ones feel the magic.

So the next time your characters experience silence, take a moment to think, is it really silence or an opportunity to engage the reader’s ears and maybe create a moment of magic for them.