The Resonant Roar of Quiet Books

This post is reprinted from "The Mitten," the blog of the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators, Michigan Chapter - based on a discussion with author Kristin Lenz

Emma D. Dryden recently celebrated the 8 year anniversary of the founding
of  drydenbks LLC. her children's editorial and publishing consultancy firm. Congrats, Emma! If you're not already following her on social media, make sure you click the links in her bio at the end of this post - you've been missing out on great advice! A couple months ago, she shared this video on her Facebook page and wrote, "I often talk with authors about the resonant roar a "quiet" story can make. Somehow this performance of human strength and beauty with Disturbed's Sound of Silence exemplifies exactly what I'm talking about."

I have often heard from editors that my stories are "too quiet," and Emma's observation intrigued me. I was mesmerized watching this performance of artistry, beauty, and strength. I found myself holding my breath, smiling, even tearing up a bit. I felt the emotion deep in my chest. And when it was over, I wanted to watch it again and share it with someone else. I felt like I had a general understanding of what Emma meant by "resonant roar," but I wasn't sure how to apply it to my stories in practical terms. I asked Emma if she could expand a bit more on her idea. This is another wonderful thing about Emma - she's very approachable!

Here's Emma discussing the resonant roar of quiet books:

The song, “The Sound of Silence” has always resonated with me, and it makes me wonder about what the sound of silence really is. What sound does silence make? And what sound does quiet make? Quiet can be unremarkable, unnoticeable, unmemorable—or quiet can be deafening.

When I think about “quiet” manuscripts, I wonder what that really means. Authors often hear from agents or editors that while their manuscript is well written or nicely characterized, it is not right for the market or for their list because it’s “too quiet.” This phrase—“too quiet”—can be translated in different ways: “not commercial enough” or “lacking a strong enough hook” or “not quickly and easily marketable” or “unremarkable, unmemorable.” But sometimes—often, in fact—it is the “quiet” story that can, if crafted well, be loud as thunder to a reader and have a lasting impact, wholly remarkable and memorable.

Within your question to me you’ve tapped into exactly what I mean when I say that a quiet manuscript can have a resonant roar: As you watched this video you felt the emotion deep in your chest. Yes! This is it! When a quiet story—what I will call a deceptively quiet story—manages to make readers experience emotions deeply, that to my mind is a story that has the opportunity to roar, to thunder, to resonate so very loudly with readers. A story that taps emotion, triggers emotion, and forces readers to stay with their emotion—that to me is the remarkable story that has a resonant roar.

At the same time, that story that taps emotion, triggers emotion, and forces readers to stay with their emotions is often, at first glance, perceived to be a quiet story—it may be the story about a relationship between a child and a pet; about a child who has lost something or someone; about a character who is lost, unable to find their way home. In these stories there are generally no obvious battles for good and evil; no horrific antagonist; no heroic quest; no dragon to slay. Not on the surface anyway.

If crafted well and true, a quiet story that explores love or loss or home can have all of these elements—but not in an obvious way. These elements—the quest, heroism, vanquishing the foe—are subtle and these elements are emotional. Loss itself is a challenge requiring heroism; grief itself is a foe to be vanquished; safety itself is the good that battles the evil of abuse or abandonment; home itself is a quest as well as a journey. These themes are simple and they are perennial and they are human—often perceived as “quiet,” these themes can be the most remarkable and most memorable but only if the author has done the deepest possible dive into human emotion to express and explore those themes through their characters.

When a manuscript’s rejected for being too quiet, it’s often because a story hasn’t explored these themes at all or has only touched on these themes too quietly, too cursorily. By this I mean the author has presented love, loss, longing, hope, or the need for safety in their story in ways that aren’t deep enough to force readers to experience the story on the deepest possible emotional level. The deeper and more resonant the emotions of a story, there’s less room for unremarkable, unmemorable quiet and the deeper and more resonant a manuscript will be to readers.