In Defense of the Quiet

by Tommy Hays, Executive Director, Great Smokies Writing Program

A few weeks ago I talked my wife out of us going to see the latest Harry Potter movie and going instead to a “small” indie movie called The Trip which I knew from the sound of it wouldn’t be in town longer than a weekend. It’s about a British actor who has been hired by the Observer to review upscale restaurants throughout the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales. He’d planned to travel with his much younger beautiful girlfriend and make a romantic trip out of it, but at the last minute she decides not to go, and after being turned down by everyone else he knows, he reluctantly asks another actor friend.

Together the two men drive through the English countryside, staying at picture-postcard inns, eating elaborate meals at chic restaurants, all the while bickering and when they’re not bickering they’re competing as to who can do the best Michael Caine impersonation.

It’s a funny movie. But honestly, I was as engaged as much by the landscape as I was by the characters. I was as interested in the fields they hiked in or the rolling countryside they drove through. In one scene the main character paces alone in front of a beautiful lake, but he’s on his cell phone with his girlfriend who’s being difficult, and he’s so engrossed in the conversation that he doesn’t notice the idyllic setting. In fact he seems to spend much of the movie on the cell phone with his girlfriend or his agent while the very places he’s supposed to be reviewing pass him by. And maybe there’s something to the notion that because the characters tend to be overlooking the beauty surrounding them, the audience is made even more aware of it.

Many people would find this too slow and too quiet a movie. (Thank the Lord my wife didn’t, although Harry Potter has already left town and she’s not happy about it). Anyway, there isn’t a lot of what we fiction teachers preach as that absolute necessity– compelling tension. Nothing big happens. These two mismatched characters drive around, eat, talk, sleep, then, after a week of this, return home. That’s about it. I never worried after the characters, as I always worry about Harry in Harry Potter. I was never on the edge of my seat, wondering who Voldemort will inhabit next.  Yet I couldn’t have enjoyed a movie more than I did The Trip. I was wholly, if gently, transported. Watching it, I entered that sweet solitude that good movies create, even in the most crowded of theaters.

I think one reason I’m drawn to quiet movies like these, movies that theaters might show for a week out of the goodness of their cinematic hearts, is because they give me permission. Permission not to have to dream up some earth shattering tension that’ll suck my readers in, although it sounds like Contagion is a quite an infectious ride. Permission not to come up with some irresistible “hook,” a metaphor I hate, suggesting that the reader is a mindless fish and fiction nothing more than glorified bait. Permission to relax and explore my characters’ world and the places they inhabit. Permission to follow the tensions, however small, wherever they may lead.

Tommy Hays is Executive Director of UNC Asheville’s Great Smokies Writing Program. He also teaches in UNCA’s Master of Liberal Arts Program. For more about The Pleasure Was Mine and other books by Tommy Hays, go to