No words

I came across a “moment” this weekend when writing my latest heroine, Sanna, for which I literally had no words to express what she was feeling. The moment was both wonderful and terrible: wonderful that Sanna was reaching such depths of emotion within me but terrible that I could not capture that emotion on paper!


I imagine we can all relate to that kind of experience whether it is a moment of profound emotion, shock or, of epiphany. Yet this was quite a strange moment for me, being a wordsmith and all. I respect there are some moments in which words are not needed; for example, in times of great grief, joy, or happiness. Our minds can be busy places, full of self-talk and shopping lists. But these “moments” where I seek to express something and words fail still intrigue me. As a writer they are like the Rubik’s Cube that I just have to solve. This is because these “moments,” whether they are deep grief, joy or love, are often the exact “moments” that I would like to capture the essence of on paper. In fact they can be the very moments that fuel a whole story.


Psychology theory suggests there are between 6 and 9 basic emotional states. Being a wordsmith it is important to be able to capture them beautifully, succinctly, and clearly in order to bring my characters to life and to connect with my readers. But what to do when the “moment” is, essentially, wordless?


There are many techniques for working with this kind of moment. You can capture the essence of the moment through the things you don’t say – literally the spaces between the words. You can talk around the moment, hint at them, drop sensual clues. In some cases this is the best time for metaphor or a simile. And of course, sometimes its best just to leave some space in the text and trust in the reader to fill in his or her own experience of what has just happened. Indeed, these moments can be the key opportunities in which to leave space within the text to allow the reader to step into the story themselves – to make it their own experience.


Personally, I feel it is “moments” like these where the powers of both poetry and the paranormal, mythology, and/or the supernatural can excel; because they are examples of writers having traversed such wordless moments before, and portrayed them perfectly. Harold Pinter captures the moment of lust beautifully with the following poem. I think as romance writers primal lust can be quite a difficult emotion to get down on paper because it is essentially, wordless. It can sometime feel like you want to push your pen right through the page to convey that final connect between your hero and heroine. I think Pinter captures that very moment perfectly below. Even though he uses the word “lust,” he creates that primal essence by drawing on all the senses and even, to an extent, the supernatural. However, at the end he leaves space. The poem is finished but it continues, the feelings ripple out beyond the page because of the mix of what is said and what is left. See what you think; does it touch on that primal lust feeling inside of you?




There is a dark sound
Which grows on the hill
You turn from the light
Which lights the black wall.

Black shadows are running
Across the pink hill
They grin as they sweat
They beat the black bell.

You suck the wet light
Flooding the cell
And smell the lust of the lusty
Flicking its tail.

For the lust of the lusty
Throws a dark sound on the wall
And the lust of the lusty
– its sweet black will –
Is caressing you still.

Harold Pinter
January 22 nd , 2006


Hengki Koentjoro also makes use of negative space beautifully in his photography. These pieces are so often about what is “not” there. 

Cikaso Fall II

Cikaso Fall II H Koentjoro


Estuary, H Koentjoro


Mass, H Koentjoro

Brian Eno is another artist that trusts in the power of silence in both his role as producer and composer. As I write I have been listening to Apollo, an album composed by Brian Eno to accompany the Apollo 11 Moon Landing. Eno felt that when watching the landing the beauty of the moment was compromised by all the commentary – the words. As such he composed an ambient album to accompany the landing instead of the journalistic narration. Indeed NASA released a non-narrative collection of Apollo footage called “For all mankind (“Apollo”),” with Eno’s album as the soundtrack. 

There are a number of examples where wordlessness actually becomes a powerful plot device. Sometimes it is the absence of something that reminds us of its power. One of the most famous mythos regarding the power of words and the agony of wordlessness, or losing one’s voice, is the tale of Echo. Echo was a beautiful mountain nymph who loved the sound of her own voice, and probably with good reason given the reported beauty of her songs. Echo often assisted Zeus in his earthly shenanigans by distracting his wife, Hera, with long tales and songs. But Hera was no sucker and soon woke up to this trickery. Hera wasn’t exactly known for her forgiving nature so punished Echo by taking away Echo’s voice. All that Echo was left with was the ability to repeat the words and voice of other people. Hence the word Echo. Needless to say Echo was a trifle upset. 

echo and narcissus

Echo and Narcissus, J Waterhouse


Narcissus, Caravaggio



Echo’s despair reached its pinnacle when she fell in love with a young man, Narcissus. There are a number of versions of how this doomed love played out. However the best-known version is when Narcissus comes to a still pool in the woods and catches a glimpse of himself in the water. He was so enamored with his own reflection that he started speaking words of love to his reflection, not realizing that he was in fact speaking to himself. Echo had been watching from the woods and, in her longing and desperation to reach out to her beloved Narcissus, Echo tried to convey her longing by repeating his words of love. But Narcissus believed these words of love were coming from the reflection in the pool. Narcissus was so in love with his reflection he could not leave the pool. Echo’s heartbreak grew ever stronger as Narcissus started to wither by the pool entrapped by the love of his own reflection. Eventually Narcissus realized he was looking at his own reflection. He could not bear the pain of this realization and committed suicide. It is believed the drops of his blood on the earth were the first seeds of the flowers commonly known as Narcissi. Echo’s heartbreak pains her for eternity. In her blind anguish she seeks out the wrath of the Gods until she is torn to pieces and her bones are scattered across the world. It is believed this is why the human voice echoes in all the lonely places; reflecting Echo’s everlasting pain.


There is also Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale in which the Little Mermaid, in a deal she strikes with the Sea Witch, loses her voice/tongue in return for legs … Let’s just say the original ending is far more interesting but also a tad more depressing than the Disney version. The fairy tale alludes to the power attributed to the female to sing sailors to their death, and what can happen when this power is taken. Through the telling of this tale we see Hans’ skill at portraying the Little Mermaid’s world without giving her words. Indeed it becomes clear there are times dialogue can get in the way of a good story.

the-little-mermaid-copenhagen-denmark john rieber

The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen. J Reiber

One of the greatest supernatural TV series ever made, Buffy (don’t even bother arguing this point, I am a Scoobie and proud of it) loses her voice, along with the rest of Sunnydale, in the episode “Hush”. Buffy and her friends have to find ways to communicate without words to discover who the villains are (The Gentleman) and why they are killing the town’s people. This is considered to be one of the most successful Buffy episodes and was nominated for an Emmy. Whedon talks about how he felt he was stagnating as a writer and director because much of the praise for Buffy seemed to be focusing on the witty dialogue. So Whedon took away the one thing that the show’s success supposedly relied on, words, and observed what happened. 


In taking away words, Whedon created a great challenge for himself. But he found that the creativity he needed to overcome these challenges moved forward the conflicts and tensions between the characters in the show because, in essence, words were not in the way. Interestingly, the last scenes of the episode, where everyone has regained their voice and the HEA has occurred, no one speaks, because words were not right at this “moment.”



So, wordlessness is both a challenge and a blessing as a writer. It is a signpost that I have arrived at something deep and profound. However, when I find myself in this place I have to tread carefully and creatively; I need to push myself beyond my comfort zone. It is often at this time that I will step back from my project and look for inspiration elsewhere – photos, paintings, music, movies etc. Eventually, I will come back and write the piece from many different angles and then often strip it back, right back to the bones of what it was, or leave it as I found it – wordless. But regardless of the end result, this whole process feels important to me even if I end up right where I began. Because it allows me to perceive this feeling, this “moment,” from many angles and to know it thoroughly; so I know exactly what I am leaving room for… Often that room that is left is… for you.

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