How Should a Character Say Nothing?

by James Scott Bell

I had an amusing conversation the other day with another writer. She writes romance. I asked who some of her favorite authors are, and what they do that she likes.

Then she asked me about thriller writers.

“Have you read any Lee Child?” I said.

She rolled her eyes and huffed.

“What?” I said.

“I tried. But he kept writing Reacher said nothing …. Reacher said nothing. I just couldn’t take it.”

I had to laugh. Reacher said nothing has become a Lee Child signature. While he certainly didn’t invent this form of attribution (Hemingway used it, as you’ll see below), Lee has turned it into a personal trope. I’m sure he puts it in with a bit of a wink and a smile.

In fact, the phrase is now so familiar that the recent book by Andy Martin chronicling Lee’s writing of Make Me is titled Reacher Said Nothing. In the book Lee explains that Reacher “often says nothing. He shouldn’t have to be wisecracking all the time. He’s not into witty repartee. He’s supposed to do things.”

Nothing wrong with that. And though I personally love witty repartee, there are times when a character should stay silent.

How do we do that effectively? X said nothing is an option. I’ve certainly used it myself. But lately I’ve begun to consider other ways.

I often bring up Hemingway’s short story, “Soldier’s Home,” when discussing the telling detail. Krebs is a young man who has returned to his Midwestern home after serving overseas in World War I. Life can never be the same for him. He’s listless, doesn’t know what he’s going to do with himself. One morning as he’s eating breakfast his mother presses him to move on with his life. She even brings religion into the discussion.

“I’ve worried about you so much, Harold,” his mother went on. “I know the temptations you must have been exposed to. I know how weak men are. I know what your own dear grandfather, my own father, told us about the Civil War and I have prayed for you. I pray for you all day long, Harold.”

Krebs looked at the bacon fat hardening on his plate.

“Your father is worried, too,” his mother went on. “He thinks you have lost your ambition, that you haven’t got a definite aim in life. Charley Simmons, who is just your age, has a good job and is going to be married. The boys are all settling down; they’re all determined to get somewhere; you can see that boys like Charley Simmons are on their way to being really a credit to the community.”

Krebs said nothing.

Well there you go! Hemingway could have used Krebs said nothing both times, but I’ll tell you what: I’ve never forgotten that bacon fat hardening, and I first read the story way back in college. It is so stunningly evocative of Krebs’s inner life. Without it I don’t think the story would be the classic it is.

Let’s set up a sample exchange:

“So what about it?” Alex said.

“What about what?” Bill said.

“You mean to stand there and look me in the eye and pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about?”

Bill said nothing.

“You were there!” Alex said. “I saw you!”

Here, said nothing does its work and gets out of the way. Fine. But overuse may call attention to it, so let’s consider alternatives: 

  1. The action beat

The character can do something rather than say something.

“So what about it?” Alex said.

“What about what?” Bill said.

“You mean to stand there and look me in the eye and pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about?”

Bill blinked a couple of times.

“You were there!” Alex said. “I saw you!”


  1. The thought beat

With a POV clearly established, a thought can be a substitute:

“So what about it?” Alex said.

“What about what?” Bill said.

“You mean to stand there and look me in the eye and pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about?”

Uh-oh. He knows.

“You were there!” Alex said. “I saw you!”


  1. The perception beat

Like Krebs, the character can notice something:

“So what about it?” Alex said.

“What about what?” Bill said.

“You mean to stand there and look me in the eye and pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about?”

Bill looked at the scuff marks on the floor.

“You were there!” Alex said. “I saw you!”

So when a character is going to be silent, don’t just default to said nothing. Use variety, which is the spice of life, fiction, and all-you-can-eat buffets.

So what do you think? Chime in. You’re not allowed to visit TKZ and say nothing!  



Oh, and speaking of nothing, how about FREE? The ebook of TRY DYING, the first of my Ty Buchanan legal thrillers, is FREE at the Kindle store today and tomorrow.

71 thoughts on “How Should a Character Say Nothing?

  1. Well I’d rather have a ‘Reacher said nothing’ than that he ‘released the breath he didn’t know he’d been holding.’ 😎

    I’d have to go through my manuscripts & look but I don’t think I stick to any one method. If it seems appropriate, I use ‘said nothing’. But I also use action beats or internal dialogue to change it up. While I can understand the invisible effect of ‘said nothing’ I like a little variety.

  2. I’m trying to remember who I read that just used a dash, instead of an attribution of any sort. I think it was David Foster Wallace in “The Broom of the System.”

    • Part of Wallace’s style was to call attention to itself. And he was good at it. Sort of a performance artist via literature. In commercial fiction, however, the goal is for the author to disappear in favor of the story.

  3. Thank you for this post. OMGosh, I learning SO much from TKZ. In my WIP, I use a lot of action beats in an attempt to convey what the character is thinking: “Kev scratched his head,” or, “Terrence shuffled his feet.” But now I’m going to throw in a “Kev said nothing” for fun.:-)

    I just downloaded Try Dying, looking forward to reading it!

  4. I love Jack Reacher. I spent an entire vacation playing catch up on Lee Child books because I had somehow managed to not hear of Jack Reacher or Lee Child.

    I usually cast aside (after the first five pages or so) 5 out of 6 books I attempt to read. So far of his I’ve only disliked one, and I stuck with it to the last annoying paragraph in hopes it would get better.

    I never noticed “Reacher said nothing” in any of them. That’s probably because I like quiet men. I like men who don’t run their mouths to hear themselves talk. I like men who just do what needs to be done. No flowery crap. I’m about to read the latest one and I will be watching this time.

  5. People dislike silent characters? This makes me chortle. Whenever any of my characters says nothing, it’s usually in the middle of a conflict. Their refusal to talk indicates that either they’re hiding something, or they’re trying really hard not to break the other guy’s teeth.

    • Just to be clear, my writer friend was not indicating that Reacher should say something, only that the repetition of the trope began to bother her. For those new to Reacher who have studied the craft, it may be a jolt. For Reacher fans, though, it’s part of the fun.

  6. It’s still early here, but I’ll give this a shot.
    I searched my current WIP for “said nothing” — zero results.
    I did find a “remained silent” and a “didn’t speak”
    One “was quiet” written from the other characters POV.
    Too early to go through all 335 pages looking for the ways my characters don’t speak. Offhand, I’d say I use action beats more than anything else when a character isn’t talking. They sip coffee, fuss with tableware, clench their fists, and, I’m sure, do way too much shrugging and nodding.

    You’ve given me one more thing to look for when I start the editing pass.

    And, like Cynthia, I’ve never noticed “Reacher said nothing.”

    • Terry, this is an important point. An author can “overuse” innocuous actions, too. I’ve read some novels where the attribution “said” is not used at all, as if this is a more skillful way to go. But good old “said” does its job without notice. All the little action beats call attention to themselves and it can get wearing.

      Bottom line, use action beats for variety, but think them through so they indicate some actual interior life.

      • Jim-
        Excellent post.
        Excellent examples that demonstrate the varied techniques that can be used to differing effect. Useful tools for any writer’s toolbelt.

        I like your warning about excessive action beats and recall you providing examples of action beat excess in previous posts…ouch!

    • Ah yes. Shrugs and nods. That’s something I always have to edit my ms for.

      • My wife (and first reader) always catches something I’ve repeated, and it seems to vary from book to book. Shrugs, frowns, hand on the shoulder, etc.

        • I recall a character in the early books of a now best selling NYT author who smoothed his mustache. Over and over and over again. As one editor said (different author, same gesture), “It’s not a gesture, it’s a tic.”

  7. I’m like bk. I try to show it different ways. I like to have an action beat or find something they see in the setting that has deeper meaning. Thanks for the post.

    • That’s the ticket, Tim. And readers will be the beneficiaries. Though they don’t analyze it all the way we do, they experience these things subliminally, and we have the ability–through the craft–of making that experience better.

  8. He looked at his keyboard and realized he had to type something. He scratched his head and took a sip of coffee. Man, the coffee was getting cold.

    Seriously, great post. I use the action beats too often, thinking they will show additional information about the character. Second, for me, have been the thought beats, or internal monologue. I need to start looking for more perception beats.

    Thanks for your teaching. I read all your posts. Often, on the first page critiques, I feel that I have nothing worth adding.

  9. I tend toward the thought beat b/c my character is in a job where she spends much of her time biting her tongue to avoid revealing confidential matters. Rather than nothing, she says something vague but thinks what she wishes she could say.

    “Mr. Rosenbaum isn’t available now.” And probably not for a long time to come.
    “I take it he’s not willing to meet with me.”
    “No, he can’t.” Because he’s locked up.

    On our favorite punctuation bugaboo–I noticed *two* semicolons in the Hemingway excerpt and both in dialogue. Papa, I’m crushed.

  10. When one of my characters get angrily obstinate, he says nothing. He’s usually fairly vocal, and speaks easily and well. But when he’s getting angry at something someone is saying, I’ll use “Philips said nothing” as a way to show it’s a choice – not a lack of things to say, but a refusal to say them.

    At times where he just doesn’t have anything to say, I’ll usually use the ‘perception beat’ you mention. And he really does look at the floor a lot when he’s uncertain or unhappy. So during an uncomfortable conversation, he might notice that his sneakers have blood on them, and think he should get new sneakers.

  11. Timely post. I’ve started a WIP where the main character is pretty quiet, hence a lot of “said Nothings.” I’m constantly worrying that the reader will forget that he’s the main character, or that he’s in the room. Which, come to think about it, is what I want the other characters in the scene to do. It’s all very tricky.

  12. I always loved it when “Reacher said nothing.” He’s a man of few words, but by not saying anything that always came across to me as an active decision. There were things he could say, he could defend himself or his choices, but he says nothing.

    • Right, and that’s valid for Reacher. As Lee Child explains, he’s not into superfluous talk or explanations. In that way, he’s a bit like Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

  13. Thank you for the post! Your posts are a highlight of my Sunday mornings.

    I’m not wild about the “he blinked” alternative. It get used a lot, and we all blink, all the time. (Similarly, it’s time to cut back on “he let out a low whistle” to stand in for surprise. Some novels sound like train yards.)

    I love the perception beat, though. In an Anne Tyler novel I read years ago, I still remember a character at archery practice shooting an arrow and realizing it was headed toward his mother. As the world stood still for him, he noticed a faraway jet crossing the sky. That beat pulled the camera back for a split second and fastened the scene in my head for good.

    Thank you again!

    • Thanks for that nice sentiment, Angela.

      I wouldn’t use blinked in isolation. By adding a couple of timesI was going for that close-up feel of nervousness.

      It’s a delicate balance, isn’t it? That’s part of the challenge, but also (for me at least) part of the fun.

  14. The Reacher novels were once some of my favorites, but I’ve stopped reading them because of the ceaseless, mind-numbing drumbeat of “Reacher said nothing.” Before I read your post, I wondered if it was unconscious on Child’s part, proof of his lack of imagination or his idea of a clever in-joke. No matter the explanation, to me he was running it into the ground and I thought he ought to do better for readers paying good money to read his books.

    Your post shows the many ways to do so or at least provide some variety and add meat to the bones at the same time.

    In my writing, assuming I’m always conscious of the problem, which of course I’m probably not, I try to specify something, as for example:

    “A pause as she wondered what the hell he was talking about.”

    “The FBI agent held his tongue from lashing out at the wiseass punk reporter.”

    • You’ll be more aware of it now, and find yourself considering the best way to show it. If you’re writing that first draft, you might just mark such places and come back to them when you edit.

  15. I like how you slipped this one in, although it is a more active version of saying nothing:

    “Have you read any Lee Child?” I said.

    She rolled her eyes and huffed.

    “What?” I said.

  16. If the character is a musician, the I might have the character play a little tune on her instrument that suits the situation. When dealing with a nasty person, the tune might be the “Wicked Witch Theme” from The Wizard of Oz, for example. Nothing like saying it with a song when words are insufficient.

  17. At writing conferences when I would speak on a panel, people often asked how authors handled writing the opposite sex. I’d joke that whenever I wrote a scene between a man & woman, at the end I would edit it by deleting half the man’s dialogue. My gender fix. When I worked in the oil & gas fields, bringing wells to market in my old life, I could find huge meaning in a grunt.

    I love body language as a way to “reply” and men aren’t the only ones who wield silence like a weapon.

    For the record, I’m fine with ‘Reacher said nothing,’ but I prefer body language or gestures that add to the reader’s imagery or convey humor.

    Fun post. Have a good Sunday.

    • huge meaning in a grunt

      Great title for a book on style, Jordan.

      Remember the line from As Good As it Gets when Nicholson is asked how he writes women characters so well? You put me in mind of that one.

  18. Loved this! Just received feedback on my first chapter from a lit agent: “Overwrought with description. Too melodramatic. When a character says nothing, don’t say it: Show, don’t tell. Read the first pages of Lee Child’s ‘Killing Floor’ so you learn how to convey action without so many words.”
    I said nothing.

    Your post is timely for me. Hey, I’m a woman, I use lots of words, so sue me, haha. I laughed when I read your post and all the comments. They’ll have to pry my adjectives from my cold, dead, lifeless, decomposing hand (she said through gritted teeth. Then she said nothing).

  19. Great post, Jim. I’ve noticed the opposite problem in certain novels. Some authors feel that whenever one character asks a question, the other MUST answer. As a result, not every response is scintillating. As Hemingway demonstrates, it’s okay for a question to go unanswered. For me, it creates tension.

    • Absolutely right, Steven. That problem is called being “on the nose.” Though it has to be that way sometime, because that’s how people really talk, in fiction being a little off center, or using silence, instantly adds tension.

  20. I tapped my lower lip, and pondered the implications of what you said. Then … you know, even though I use these strategies, I am still told I shouldn’t be like Hemingway. Hemingway is anciet; don’t be like Hemingway. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever used he said nothing – have always used other beats. Yet agents and publishers still want Hemingwayesque in my writing though they tell me not to be like Heminway. I’m confused. I know I shouldn’t be because I’m writing stories and they turn out the way they do because it’s me writing them not Hemingway. And, I often put He said at the head of a sentence rather than at the end: He said, ‘Don’t be Ernest.’

    • I also put the tag in front of the dialogue sometimes. It’s good for variety.

      But I’m flummoxed why someone would say you should write more like Hemingway these days. Hemingway is considered out of fashion, though his short stories still remain some of the best ever written.

      Maybe you should just go deep sea fishing and forget about it.

  21. “I’ve worried about you so much, Harold,” his mother went on.
    “Your father is worried, too,” his mother went on.

    Hemingway went on and on about his mother. Krebs looked at bacon and said nothing.

    • In a manuscript I had Aye give an opinion, and ask Bee if she agreed. Bee just ignored Aye. Bee didn’t say anything, Bee didn’t not say anything. (I wrote no response to Aye’s question. I dropped the ball!)

      The editor I’m working with wrote something like, “Bee didn’t agree, but she didn’t say anything.”

  22. ‘X said nothing’ is useful when I have a person with a lot to say. Instead of a monologue in a huge paragraph, I cut it with Y’s waiting for response, and getting none. It’s a great way to turn an odd info dump into a smooth dialogue that shows not only the info needed, but both characters involved – the one who’s silent, and the one who’s waiting (and reacting on absence) for reply.

    I have to admit, I like it more when my POV character gets only silence because then I can show his reaction to that – perfect for annoyance – and his skills in reading the other person’s silence (and reasons for it).

  23. I use a variety of beats, inner monologue, body language, and “didn’t speak,” which I probably use more than I should. Thanks for another excellent post, Jim!

  24. Thanks for the download!

    I know I’ve used something silly in my WIP, but I’m counting on the magic of the rewrite to fix my moments of WTFever-just-keep-writing.

    And I don’t think I have any variation of not-knowing-they-were-holding-their-breath-BS, but now I’m kinda worried. A character would only hold their breath if I would my breath in that situation. Although I have been shocked breathless on a few occasions, but I’m not sure that’s the same thing.

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  26. Jim,
    Thank you for a great post. If you don’t mind, I have a question about using thought beats and perception beats. The thought beat “Uh-oh, he knows,” felt like it pulled me out the narrative, but the perception beat didn’t. First, is that just me. If not, any tips on using a thought beat cleanly? Second, for the perception beat, is this a good place to drop a symbolic gesture, or is this too small a space for that. In the “bacon fat hardening” it seems to be a metaphor for the character’s state of life at the moment. But does that small a moment reach the reader, even if subconsciously?

    • Good questions, Sterling.

      Thought beats are used all the time. My preference is to use them sparingly, and make them short.

      And yes, a perception beat is a great opportunity for a symbolic visual, or a sot of metaphor of the inside of the character.

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  28. Thank you for this post. My actual hero is suffering from “said nothing” syndrome. Now I got some ideas to change it. 🙂

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