Using Silence to Create a Mood
Every once in a while a story comes along that is unlike any other. Dancing Birds, the featured story from our September/October 2015 issue, is such a story. What makes it so special? Yes, the characters and setting are exotic. A Welsh girl named Glas lives with her family in a French-speaking village in Quebec. Glas makes mechanical animals in her attic. She misses her father, who is in Denmark, helping his sick brother. She misses her grandmother, who has gone home to Wales. Then her cousin Maskine arrives, sad and silent.
But beyond the unusual characters and setting, the story, by 11-year-old Ayla Schultz, is special for the mood it creates. When we finish reading it, our mood has changed too. We feel the sadness, the loneliness, and the final glimmer of happiness. We are in the world of the story. How does Ayla do it?
Read the story carefully, and you will see that it is full of descriptions that engage our senses. We see Glas’s dark blue eyes and her grandmother’s red coat. We smell and taste the cinnamon hot chocolate. The bare trees, icy water, and freezing rain tell us how cold it is. But above all, sounds—and especially silence—set the mood of this story. In the first scene, Glas sits silently atop a sand dune, staring at the chilly scene below, thinking about happier times. When cousin Maskine arrives, she doesn’t say a word for weeks. Finally, she speaks a few words to Glas, then grows silent again. Maskine is deeply worried about her family back in Denmark. Sometimes the silence is broken by a doorbell, a knock, or a slammed door. The postman is chatty when he brings a letter. Then all is quiet.
In the story’s final scene, Glas has invited Maskine up to her attic workshop. Glas silently hands her the key to a beautiful mechanical bird. From their one conversation, we know that the girls have a bond. They share a love of birds and the way they appear to dance on the sand. Maskine turns the key and the mechanical bird lifts it legs one by one, just like the birds on the beach. For the first time since she arrived, Maskine smiles. No words are spoken, and the story ends with this perfect moment of understanding.
The next time you write a story, think about sounds. Which sounds will you include, and which will you leave out? Will your characters reveal themselves through dialogue or through their thoughts? Sometimes a connection can be made between two people from a shared experience, without any words being exchanged. See if you can create a mood that stays with your reader long after the story has ended.