I've noticed that lots of people (me included) use verbs to describe 'silence' that imply downward motion. For example:
"Silence settled over the prairie." "A hush descended on the group." "The room fell quiet."
I wondered if anyone had any thoughts as to why this is the most common way to describe what silence does? I'm stumped as to the origin and relentlessness of this cliche. Why doesn't silence ever tumble, sink, crash, or trip? Why doesn't it ever bubble up, spring, or take flight?
The other cliched verb that I use for silence is blanket. I got to thinking about this, and it seems kind of backwards to me. Silence doesn't blanket, noise does. Maybe silence should be described in terms of revealing. For example:
"The engines stopped, uncovering a silence as deep as the sea." Which has to be better than, "The engines stopped. Silence fell over the boat."
or "The silence uncovered the hurt in his eyes. How long had it been there without her noticing?"
That got me to wondering what other things silence could do. Can it have other senses of movement other than down? I tried:
"Silence spilled out from the bar like beer from a broken bottle."
"The restaurant was noisy, but silence pooled around the Captain's table as they waited for him to continue the story."
But again, spill and pool have kind of a downward sense to them, we keep circling that drain. There also seem to be quite a few liquid-describing verbs. Have I been at sea too long, or do you guys see this too?
I tried again: "Silence jumped from desk to desk as workers opened and read the sad email."
What about non-movement verbs:
"Awkward silence reigned at the dinner table." might be a cliche. What's the opposite of reign... liberate? We can say then, "The silence freed her to enjoy the meal."
And then I was wondering about emotional verbs. Silence can brood, but can it rejoice? I think we all experience joyful silence, but how do we write about it? I couldn't think of a sentence that had silence doing any kind of positive emotive verb. Imagination fail. Maybe you all can.
That's a matter of context. The verb you use can affect the way a reader understands the story. If you describe the happenings from a young person's perspective, you would use different words than if you described it from an old person's perspective etc. The right use of words can create the necessary detail to enable story immersion.
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That's one of the great things about the English language, that you can put so many different words together to create completely unique and appropriate meanings.
You can even completely make up words that can be understood contextually, like "The bubbles bloggled against the glass until finally piffing, one after another." Lewis Carroll was fond of doing that .
I imagine as long as what you're describing makes sense in regards to silence you could do just about anything, and stamp your own mark on a phrase. "The gunshots came in a constant roar, until finally it seemed like it was the silences between them that crashed against his ears."
[This message has been edited by Natej11 (edited August 03, 2011).]
Silence is usually peaceful and calm, so these clihes are showing that. Blankets are comforting. Settling down-calming down.
Silence can also be eerie especially when it is not expected. I think silence fell kind of gives this feel. "Silence fell on the prarie," has a more eerie feel to me than 'Silence settled on the prarie.'
Using jumped or crashed to describe silence does the opposite. In fact at almost feels like a contradiction. 'The silence crashed against the boat' does not give the same peaceful feel as 'the silence settled on the boat' or the eerie feel of 'silence fell upon the boat.'
Of course you can use silence jumped or crashed if it fits, but I think it gives a jaring feel. If that is what you are going for, then use it.
[This message has been edited by MAP (edited August 03, 2011).]
I'm inclined to go with the explanation offered that silence is calming in a sense. It can calm in a good way or a bad; I've had silence imprison someone before, and I'm no stranger to occasionally throwing around the deafening silence. I know silence has reigned over a few tables, rooms, and such in my works. Silence also has a feeling of being alive; I've often described it as a thing that can be killed, wounded, or at least broken.
When I turn my stereo down I don't get more silence. When I turn it up I don't get less. Volume drops. I take it that in most cases writers are using silence figuratively, as a profound reduction in volume.
Sound level is measured in such a way that higher values are farther away from silence than lower values. Perfect silence is the absence of sound, like absolute zero is the absence of heat. Perhaps the default way of describing silence "moving" comes from this standard method of measurement.
This is an interesting topic. I can see now that there are all sorts of attributes we measure on relative scales that have this default way of description.
[This message has been edited by posulliv (edited August 03, 2011).]
There has been some good responses already but I also think part of of it is that silence doesn't do anything. You don't make silence--unless it's Silence; horrible creation of magic or strange science-- it takes over as noise leaves. So people use more passive sounding verbs. In this case I think sinks is more passive than raises.
Unless you're suddenly deaf or a noise that should not stop does.
I'm getting to that place in writing where I recognize writer habits in others' work from a mile away. The book we're reading now has incalculable uses of the word incalculable (the kids and I listen to an audio book together at all times.) It's one of those words that is overused by this particular author (third book in a series, did the editor just get tired of highlighting overuse cases??) There are other places where I see the author using techniques and can anticipate the second half of a sentence based on the first.
The most interesting aspect of this? It doesn't impede my enjoyment of the work AT ALL. The only thing that bothers me with this particular series is that the author takes his own sweet time telling the story, using hundreds of pages to get us through a calendar day. I want things to move a bit faster, that's all. That's a style choice, not really a critique, as the words that are written are very evocative, I feel very in the moment with the writing.
But even though I see these semi-cliched ways of referencing things, I don't mind because I enjoy the heck out of the book. Good story trumps it all!
I can accept these arguments that silence is usually peaceful, calm, and passive and that downward movement verbs are sort of natural ways to describe those aspects of it. Most things in our experience are heavier than air, so they tend to sink when they are at rest. When you compare the density of a stone to water, you'll predict that a stone will sink; by analogy id you compare the 'density' of sound in a noisy place to a quiet place, I suppose we think in terms of movement from 'high' sound to 'low' sound (amplitude, not pitch). But it's really a trick of the mind because silence travels at the same speed and in the same direction as sound, just as the speed and direction of light is the same as the speed and direction of dark.
Anyhow, Posuliv, I'm curious about what other attributes you thought of that have a default description. It might be interesting to open another thread for one of them.
KayTi's point is interesting, too. I wonder if we should go ahead and use these cliches sometimes? If we're constantly shaking it up with interesting verbs that the user has to think about do we risk making our writing too dense and challenging? Perhaps the style of our writing will get in the way of the story (which is incalculably more important ).
[This message has been edited by Crane (edited August 04, 2011).]
As to using the same old cliches; I hate to go back to this but pro writers use them. And I don't think it's always because of laziness, etc.. The cliches say things in a way readers will get. In a way readers may be comfortable with. Still you shouldn't use a lot of them, that would probably get on the nerves of a lot of readers but as I said readers immediately know what you mean and may feel at ease with some.