Silence is Golden

- Or How Stories Can Be Written Without Words -

The end of ‘Hush,’ the tenth episode of season 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of the most brilliant endings to a television show I have ever seen. It seems sort of obvious, but it’s fantastic.

But let’s start at the beginning.

There are a lot of ways to tell a story, but when someone mentions writing, society has taught us to think of text. Everyone recognizes that Television, Movies, Plays, and even Oral Performance involve writing because it is understood that the actors had to read a written script, or the performer is reading off of a written piece. This leaves out quite a bit, if we are only considering what is written out as dialogue, stage direction, or flavor text (in the case of multimedia presentations, including video games). It leaves out game mechanics, for example, and simple silence. This definition of writing leaves out musical cues, the absence of music, the cinematography decisions, and a myriad other things.

“But E,” you say, “those things aren’t writing.”

No, they aren’t writing in the traditional sense. In the case of ‘Hush,’ nearly the entire episode is silent. No dialogue. Yet, there was undoubtedly writing involved. It may have been in the form of direction on the page, which inevitably gave way to direction on set. Then, at the end, when all the characters have their voices back, Buffy and Riley sit down to have a conversation. There is no music, and, after the initial ‘I guess we need to talk’ conversation starter, there is no dialogue. This is brilliant, and was possibly barely written down (I wouldn’t know for sure, since I don’t have a script).

But let’s go to a more extreme example – the game Journey by That Game Company. Journey is a multiplayer experience in which the two players involved cannot speak to one another. There is no dialogue, flavor text, or reading involved in this game, which provides an interesting challenge to the players. They have to communicate through the game mechanics – drawing in the sand, or ‘chirping’ at one another.

The game itself is based on The Hero With A Thousand Faces  by Joseph Campbell, and is a silent exploration of the stages of the Hero’s Journey. At first glance, it is easy to say that That Game Company did not employ writers in the development process. Yet, at the end of the game, you have most definitely experienced a story. So where are the writers? They are the programmers, artists, character designers, sound designers, composers, engineers, and so on. Each person on a development team must have been aware of the story and feel that the game was supposed to have, and, though they did not have a writer, they wrote metaphors into their mechanics, cut-scenes, graphics, and music.

They told a story.

Writing, I think, becomes synonymous with story telling, but, like most things, we have to think about it more complexly. Writing words is on thing, but people also write code, scripts, directions, etc. and you can convey a story without any written words. Storytelling is more than just text on a page – it is action in a movie, metaphor in game mechanics, silence on the TV screen, and it’s time we recognized the writing is not the sole driver of these things. It’s the story.