John F. Dobbyn. Born and raised in Boston, John F. Dobbyn is a graduate of Harvard College and Boston College Law School. Prior to entering law school, Dobbyn served in the Air Force as a radio and radar director of aircraft in the Air Defense Command. After practicing law for several years as a trial lawyer, he obtained a Master of Law degree from Harvard Law School and subsequently accepted a position as Professor of Law at Villanova Law School. Dobbyn is the author of Neon Dragon, Black Diamond, Frame-Up, and Deadly Diamonds, as well as numerous short stories.
John F. Dobbyn:
In Praise of Silence in Mystery/Thriller Writing
One of the most overlooked weapons in the arsenal of mystery/thriller writers is not what we say, but what we hold back. Silence can be not only golden – it can be 24 carat. Just as in a well-planned garden, the spaces left open contribute as much to the over-all design as the spaces planted, the same is even more true in a medium that breathes and thrives on suspense and tension.
The most crucial element for kidnapping and holding the reader by the nervous system is character. It has been my experience that when an otherwise interesting character is over-defined with all of the imaginative spaces filled in, the effect is minimal. On the other hand, if the writer draws the character with the minimum necessary brush strokes to give the reader an outline of the essentials, and then allows the reader to let his/her own imagination fill in the remaining blanks, the writer has invited the reader into an active partnership in formulating a flesh and blood character, and that partnership between reader and writer will bond the reader to the story far more deeply.
For example, I have four mystery/legal-thriller novels in the Michael Knight/Lex Devlin series published by Oceanview Publications. Nowhere in those four - nor in the fifth in the works – will you find a description of what Michael looks like other than his height and his age. And yet I’m fortunate in having readers say they love the character. I’m sure that each of their “Michael”s looks far different from mine and from each other’s, but that’s the trick. They are each forming an attachment to their own work of invention – even though I get the credit.
The same is true of action in the plot. While I don’t mind vivid violence in the writings of others, it’s not my style. Violence occurs in my novels, but it occurs in the minds of the readers, not in my words. Here’s an example. In the latest novel, “Deadly Diamonds” about the market for the blood diamonds of Sierra Leone, there is a scene in which Michael pairs with a former IRA fighter, Sean Burke. They approach a bar in South Boston. There are six Irish mafia hoods in the bar. Michael needs to talk with one of them. Sean tells Michael to stand outside while he cleans out the unnecessary five.
This is going to be a violent scene with blood and bone breaks in the mix. I won’t, however, spread the gory details on the page. Instead, I stationed Michael, who tells the story in first person, outside the bar. He only describes the sounds he hears coming from the bar after Sean goes in to clean house. The sounds are not bloody or gory, but they let the reader fill in what’s going on inside in his/her own contributing imagination. They wind up thinking they’ve witnessed a fight –and they have, but only in their imagination, not spelled out in crimson on the page. I find that that kind of co-imagining by the reader and writer is much more effective in pulling the reader one hundred percent into the story.
That same kind of silence and painting by spare brush strokes can work for the writer in having the reader understand the setting. In the middle of a tense flow of dialogue and action from chapter to chapter, there is nothing I appreciate LESS than a lengthy poetic flight into pastoral description, no matter how impressive the prose. Leave that work to silence, aided by the bare bones of description. The reader will get the point without a suspension of suspense, so to speak.
All in all, I firmly believe that when the art is mastered, the use of silence can be as effective as any weapon in the hands of the writer.
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