Stillness

Charles Baxter, in Burning Down the House, Essays on Fiction, devotes an entire chapter to a principle he calls “Stillness.” To paraphrase a rather lengthy and well documented argument, he proposes that stillness, a moment in fiction where action subsides and characters/narrators focus on the minutiae of their surroundings, “is an intensifier—that it strengthens whatever stands on either side of it.” His argument is much deeper, and much more complex. And, while I don’t agree with everything he says, the fundamental issue remains: Stillness is a very useful tool in fiction.

Let’s contrast stillness with action. Action, of course, is necessary to keep a fiction narrative moving forward. It is indispensible, and often garners the most attention. Baxter argues, however, to a certain extent, that an over-inundation of action has desensitized us to it. We’re not shocked by it anymore. If anything, he says, we are addicted to it—that is we require it, crave it, need it. We don’t think much about the action. We expect it. How then, do we write effective action scenes? Memorable scenes?

If we’re thinking in the context of film, imagine the slow motion scene just before chaos breaks loose. There is a divine moment when action seems to stop. We notice small details—the smell of popcorn in the air at the carnival, the particular way the sun warms your skin while the breeze cools it, the exact baby blue shirt your wife is wearing, and the feel of your son’s sweaty hand in yours. When we slow the action and develop our exposition, it allows the reader to better experience the scene. Then, whatever follows this divine stillness, is carries a heavier weight. Perhaps this is the moment your wife chooses to tell you that she’s leaving you, or that her mother is dying. Maybe this is the day someone kidnapped your son. Or, less tragically, the day your teenage daughter announces her engagement to her boyfriend (for better or worse). Whatever follows this moment of stillness will carry an added emotional weight because of the stillness that precedes it.

The same can be accomplished if you’re writing more of a thriller. Think of the moment preceding the shoot out at the O.K. Corral, or, as Baxter points out, the moments of extended talking between gun battles in Pulp Fiction. Think of the seconds before the general calls “Charge” from the perspective of a soldier in the front lines.

Whatever the case, very little shocks us these days. Constant bombardment of action in our media has conditioned us to ignore action unless it’s remarkable in some way. One of the ways to make your action remarkable is to slow down the moments before the action, before the chaos, before the other shoe drops.

9 Comments on Stillness

  1. I think stillness is important in writing because it gives the reader a vision of the setting. Action is important as well, but you can’t solely rely on it. A bunch of characters moving around in a white room would bot be very interesting.

  2. janet anderson | February 26, 2013 at 4:56 pm | Reply

    stillness…. I have never really thought of it like that.. but having stillness is good specially in a horror book. stillness with action is a great combo you don’t want your book to be boring and you also want to make the reader visualize the place or setting to get more out of the story.

  3. DeZerae Fraijo | February 26, 2013 at 8:59 pm | Reply

    Once again, another element has been presented to me that I had not previously been aware of. It all makes complete sense now. Looking back at films I’ve watched, there really is that stillness that –though it’s only for a few moments– really seems to last for quite some time. That illusion really does capture both the character and that of the reader/viewer.
    In my novel, I haven’t written enough to actually reach a “still” moment, but hopefully I will remember to use this technique once I’ve reached that point.

  4. I think that stillness is more important then action because …. well mainly because i write horror books. I also think action is important but not as important. Its easy to write something with action because it is so commonly done.

  5. The key to making stillness (and by extension, the action that follows) work is making it the right length. If it’s too short, then the reader feels somewhat cheated, and the scene feels anticlimactic. On the other end of the spectrum, if you make the stillness last too long, it’s frustrating. A lot of classic novels have very long stretches of stillness. It’s tedious, and that’s not as fun to read.
    Write well, write often.

  6. Summer Connell | March 4, 2013 at 11:05 am | Reply

    Stillness is important because when the action is going on it gives the reader something to think about and gets them more interested.

  7. JessicaRae Padilla | March 15, 2013 at 12:21 pm | Reply

    I get what it says that that silent moment right before the action happens, it builds suspense. I have thought of putting this into writings but when I add it I don’t really know how to use it or work with it I usually say “There was a long awkward silence before……” Or “Everything paused right before…..” And I find it just doesn’t sound right so I just take it out. But I would like to get better at it, because it makes that one moment that builds the readers interest in wanting to continue to read.

  8. Stillness keeps the reader interested in what they are ready, complete action, or dialogue can be dull and boring to ready. Yet, stillness can create this moment where the world goes quite and all five of your senses complete indulge the moment of stillness.

  9. Stillness is bery important to writing, its one of the things that contribute to the rising action. It also helps add detail to the story, if you dont have a moment of stillness then you dot have very much of a story.

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