Speech and silence in narrative

One of the things I love about my writing workshops is that all sorts of questions come up spontaneously during our discussions, and directly from the creative works underway. Using these prompts, I prepare short essays, or micro-lessons, about these questions of technique, revision and editing that the writers have raised along the way. What follows is one of the micro-lessons that I wrote for participants in my Summer 23 Workshop, which has just wrapped up.

In my micro-lessons, I love to draw on contemporary (and classic) works of fiction and nonfiction, including those by Australian writers, who are after all, our writing colleagues. In this post I’m working with short extracts from works by Fiona Kelly McGregor and Gillian Mears.

* *

When we talk about dialogue in fiction, the first thought is usually of direct dialogue, quoted text which is narrated exactly as the characters said it. But dialogue really needs to be thought of as dialogue and speech that is reported or paraphrased, along with a character’s unspoken thoughts — the thoughts that a character says to themselves, their internal speech, revealed not to any other characters in the story, but only to the reader of the text.

These thoughts may be indicated with “double” or ‘single’ (the Australian style) quote marks and a dialogue tag (e.g. ‘About time,’ she thought to herself), or without. When thought is represented on the page without dialogue marks or a dialogue tag, it’s known as free indirect discourse (or free indirect speech, or internal monologue).

In addition to these forms of dialogue and speech, are the silences, gaps and ellipses that are either present in reality in the conversation (a character simply doesn’t speak for whatever reason), or present because of the way the dialogue has been narrated in the text. For instance, a scene might end with a question uttered by one of the characters left unanswered. In the ‘real life’ of the characters, the question would have been answered, but the spoken response is not shown in the text.

Here’s an example of this last technique, from Fiona Kelly McGregor’s latest novel, Iris (2022). The book is narrated in the first person, by Iris.

I heard they took her straight to the Refty. You lip’s bleeding Iris.

I touched it. I felt my soiled bloomers, heard Bea’s voice in the room above. A shiver ran through me. I said, I gotta go up and get my things, Mona. Come with me?

And so it was that I ended up sunning my legs with Mona Ryan on the steps at Naughtons…

Iris, 121

Firstly notice that McGregor doesn’t use quote marks for any direct speech in the novel. The narration provides all the contextual information the reader needs to know that a character is speaking, and which character.

The second thing to notice here, is that even though we don’t hear Mona’s response to Iris’s question, within a beat we know what her response had been, because the next line of narration infers what the response was (yes, I’ll come): ‘And so it was that I ended up sunning my legs with Mona Ryan on the steps at Naughtons… ‘

This isn’t a technique of the writer creating an intentional silence from the character (Mona); it’s simply that it’s not necessary to include the spoken response. Just because a question is asked, doesn’t mean it has to be answered. To have included Mona’s response would have slowed down the pace, added redundant words, and not been particularly interesting at that point in the story.


A character’s intentional silence, when they withhold words, can be powerful and subtle. Silence can range from the accident of not hearing and therefore not responding, to not wanting to answer, to refusing to speak, to telling a lie through silence, and much more.

Here’s an example of varied silences during a conversation, from ‘Severed Land’, a short story by the late Gillian Mears (in A Map of the Gardens, 2002).

The situation is that the city sister, Thea, is visiting her country town sister, Verity. There’s a long history of tension, lies and betrayals between them, though they once happily spent a lot of time together when they were youngsters. Thea is recovering from breast cancer, but she hasn’t yet told Verity about it let alone her double mastectomy surgery, even though their mother died of breast cancer.

What you need to know as preparation for reading the scene below, is that the year before, the sisters had agreed to meet up together at a national park where Verity was camping. But they didn’t have the planned picnic because, while Verity was there, she hid from her sister Thea on the day. It’s this missed get-together that Thea refers to. She begins with a direct question:

‘That was a year ago, wouldn’t it have been?’ Thea asks. ‘When the muddle-up happened?’

‘What muddle up?’ Verity pretends. Turning to light another candle, her profile allows Thea to marvel at how time has unglued them both. … Whereupon she glances down at Verity’s bare feet and sees that they are brimy, the nails so untrimmed one toe is infected.

‘Oh, you know,’ Thea continues. ‘At the National Park. I’d got the days confused and came all the way to the beach only to find you weren’t there.’ And before it can hurt her, Thea deftly doesn’t allow the image up into her mind of seeing Verity furtively, like something out of a cartoon, creeping toward her tent.

A map of the gardens, 178

Verity is evasive, when in answer to Thea’s direct question, she pretends not to even know what ‘muddle up’ Thea is referring to. Thea is evasive twice: firstly with her silence in not saying that she witnessed Verity trying to hide from her that day, and secondly, with a silence she imposes within herself, of trying to quash all memory of the incident. 

So there are three kinds of silence in this exchange. Verity’s silence involves hiding her real thoughts, while Thea withholds what she knows, and then wants to silence her own feelings.

Yet throughout the scene, the two characters are talking. They are in dialogue. You can see how deftly, even in this very short passage, the combination of dialogue and thoughts are interwoven and integrated. This combination expresses the understated and but persistent friction between them, a friction which leads the story forward.

To get the benefit of the full suite of my micro lessons along with feedback on your own writing, join me in my upcoming Winter 23 Writing Workshop. It starts June 7. I also work with writers on individual mentoring and developmental manuscript editing.

Author: Jane Messer

Author, Mentor, Manuscript Assessor - The Bold Ink

Leave a Reply