Subtext: the art of saying what can’t be said

I’ve noticed that during times of extreme emotion or fear I’m at my most inarticulate. Either my mind goes blank, or is so full of raw emotion words don’t form coherent patterns. In fiction it’s often the same for characters.

I think I first became aware of this phenomenon when I was in Year 5 in primary school. All year I had coveted the role of Garbage Monitor. Hard to believe, I know, but everyone in the class shared that ambition, and popular notions can be very compelling.

My week came. Every lunchtime I went into the classroom for the teacher’s wastepaper basket to empty in the large bins outside. One day a group of girls were in the room when I arrived, even though classrooms were out of bounds during playtime. I sauntered across the room to the teacher’s desk, feeling virtuous and a little righteous.

Before I was halfway across Mr Perry’s voice boomed out, “What are you girls doing in here again?” He stood at the door. He glared at the girls sitting on the desks, and also at me.

‘Line up here.’ He took a ruler from the blackboard ledge. The girls lined up.

‘You, too,’ he shouted at me.

‘Sir, …’

‘Don’t tell me you weren’t in here yesterday. I saw you.”

The ruler stung my calves like needles. I walked around with a raised red stigmata for the rest of the afternoon. Anger, embarrassment, shame, and the blatant unfairness of what was happening strangled my 10 year old self.

I didn’t tell my mother, even with her famous loathing of injustice. I didn’t tell anyone.

I remembered this incident recently when I started writing a story about a husband who feared his wife was going to leave him. His fear was so strong and unbearable it seemed more plausible to me that he couldn’t talk about it. Perhaps he was frightened if he brought it out into the open the ensuing confrontation would give his wife the opportunity to go. Perhaps he couldn’t or didn’t want to acknowledge this fear to himself.

So instead of my characters discussing things head on I needed to imply the husband’s fear, move it into the subtext, make it an unspoken and half-hidden element of the story. But I also had to think of ways that would direct the reader, make them slip, under the surface of the text. These are some of ways I thought about tackling it.

• Actions and gestures are important as a means of expressing what isn’t being said. All the husband’s actions will be aimed at keeping his wife close, making himself indispensable, controlling her.

• The characters’ expressions may show glimpses of what they’re feeling when their masks are allowed to fall.

• Let the concrete objects take on emotional significance. In my story the couple watch a container ship enter the harbour. It’s being restrained by the tugs with taut steel ropes so it won’t sway off-course. Like the husband is controlling the wife so she has no room to move.

• Give the details of the world a heightened intensity. Describing objects and actions in intimate detail bestow on them a gravitas that suggests hidden meaning.

Discussing ways that make it easier for the reader to ‘see’ what can’t be ‘seen’ is difficult. I’d be very interested to hear how other writers think about subtext.

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2 Responses to Subtext: the art of saying what can’t be said

  1. Sue. says:

    I like the symbolism of the tug restraint for control I watched a beautiful stallion that was running free in a paddock and then saw two men round it up and force it into a tiny coral, makes a wonderful metaphor as well I think.

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