Subtext: listening to what isn’t being said

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I recently read Charles Baxter’s book “The Art of Subtext.” What a complicated topic to take on – although, Amazon assures me plenty of how-to writers have tackled it. Writing about the art of subtext is a little like trying to catch the tail of that passing cloud: hard to grasp and just when you think you’ve got it, a gentle breeze pushes it out of reach.

Subtext, of course, is what’s not being said. It’s the river of meaning running beneath a scene. It’s when two characters do something or say one thing, but they actually mean something much deeper and often much weightier.

Some use it to comic effect, like Woody Allen in the classic Annie Hall – he puts of subtitles during one part of the film to illustrate that the two courting characters are actually asking and answering much differently that their real questions and answers might suggest.

Others use it for emotional effect, allowing something to happen in a scene that builds a deeper understanding of the character or her relationship to another character or what might be happening between them.

Baxter’s book is not a manual and I found my concentration drifted many times while reading. Like I say, it’s tough to write about what’s not there.

He begins by looking at scene staging. It’s a great place to start – where characters are, what they’re doing, how they interact can say so much. Think about body language. Think about the way characters look at one another. Think about a fighting couple moving as a well-oiled machine. Sure, they might be at odds on one level, mired in miscommunication or frustration and perhaps thinking that there’s nothing that draws them together, but on another, even deeper level, they seem to understand each other’s choreography intrinsically.

Think about The Apartment, and how Ms Kubelik takes the men up and down all day in the elevator. What does her job say to enrich her character?

Baxter goes on to talk about when characters can’t or won’t hear what’s happening around them – a technique that I can’t say I’ve encountered too often, or at least not in a way that would have suggested subtext. He also talks about inflection, which is advice that might work well for stage or screen, but becomes difficult to denote on the page, other than through italics or unlining or, worse in my opinion, tagging that includes adjectives like “softly,” “brashly,” “stubbornly.”

The final bit of the book is about literal loss of face – the way authors don’t take the time much anymore to let readers know what their characters actually look like. It was a strange note to end on, given that it doesn’t happen much anymore and there didn’t seem to be great examples of where a physical description would qualify as subtext.

All of which is to say, subtext is something that’s tricky – writing it and writing about it. But it shows a deeper level of understanding about the story and can bring a whole new level of satisfaction to a story. I’m assured that when I’m further along in the writing process, much of Baxter’s book will make sense. I look forward to that moment! For all kinds of reasons!

(Photo courtesy of Unsplash)

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