What Just Happened?

Consider the following lines:

Amanda put the car in park and killed the engine. Nothing happened.

and

Carlos raised the pistol and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened.

Sentences like “Nothing happened” come up a lot in fiction writing. A lot of people will say that it’s complete filler, that you shouldn’t point out when something isn’t happening. Some people will say it’s totally fine, that reading between the lines is what fiction is all about. If you like, you can just pick a camp and be done with it, but I think it’s pretty clear that “Nothing happened,” despite being the same words in both examples, works well in one and not really in the other. Why is this?

The answer, I think, has to do with expectation.

In the first example, when Amanda kills the engine, what do we expect to happen next? Well, she could open the door, or put on her gloves, or just sit there for a while, but there isn’t any one thing that we feel is really going to definitely happen. So when nothing happens, we think, “Oh. Okay.” The words “Nothing happened” don’t really mean anything.

In the second example, when Carlos pulls the trigger, we know immediately what’s most likely to happen next: The gun will fire. That’s what triggers are for, and that’s what we’re expecting. So when the gun doesn’t fire, when nothing happens, it’s a development. It’s a twist. It creates questions: Did he forget to turn off the safety? Was it a dud? Did someone file the firing pin down? Was the gun even loaded? The words “Nothing happened” mean something, and they mean a whole lot.

“Nothing” can be used to great effect once we know what we’re expecting to happen. But it can also be a great way to create a hole in your writing, and a hole in the right place can hold a whole lot of information. Consider the following:

“Why did you do it?” asked Carlos.

They sat there for a moment, neither of them moving an inch.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Amanda.

and

“Why did you do it?” asked Carlos.

They sat there for almost two hours, neither of them moving an inch.

“Because I hate you,” said Amanda.

Two holes, one vastly bigger than the other, each containing everything. In the first, a decision to lie; in the second, to tell the truth.

 

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