The Art of Subtext (subtitled ‘Beyond Plot’) discusses that aspect of writing that… actually isn’t within the writing.
The Art of Subtext discusses and illustrates the hidden subtextual overtones and undertones in fictional works haunted by the unspoken, the suppressed, and the secreted. – https://www.graywolfpress.org/books/art-subtext
Subtext is the Loch Ness Monster of writing tools. There are many examples people point at, but we still have a severe lack of critical, useful details. Many books about writing dodge fluffy topics like theme and voice, but subtext must be the most elusive, because it seems to get the shortest shrift.
In The Art Of Subtext, Charles Baxter dives in headfirst, examining how tools like tone, setting, staging, selective listening, broken filters, and characters who cannot or simply will not listen all help create the void where subtext lives. Each chapter tries lighting subtext from a different angle.
The chapter “Art of Staging” discusses “…putting characters in specific strategic positions in the scene so that some unvoiced nuance is revealed.” It goes on to discuss books that leave little to the imagination, and compares them to the Robert Frost poem “Home Burial” in which the characters are specifically placed, invoking subtext. When reading the poem, I had a massive aha moment. That first-hand subtext experience was no doubt what the author intended.
“Digging the Subterranean” discussed the difference between what a character wants and what a character really wants. It dwells on obsessions like Captain Ahab’s fixation on Moby Dick, and points out (if you didn’t know this already) that he was after more than just a big whale. Gatsby, from The Great Gatsby, was after more than just the girl he couldn’t have. This chapter really opened my eyes to the possibilities of writing that which cannot be written.
“Unheard Melodies” deals with what Baxter calls “the unheard” and he divides it into two flavors: denial, which is refusing to hear, and filtering, which is the inability to hear what is important though all the noise of our lives. What characters will not hear (denial) and what they cannot hear (poor filtering) tell you something about the characters; something that the author didn’t actually write. This section also points out that much of the current literature contains characters whom are all perfect listeners – they hear and understand everything that is said to them. This is not only pretty far removed from our world, but overlooking some interesting storytelling opportunities.
“Inflection and the Breath of Life” discusses the way things are said, while “Creating a Scene” covers how to… well, create a scene. In the Midwest we’d call that behavior “uppity,” something to be avoided. But in fiction writing, it’s something to be sought out. Both of these chapters connections to subtext are more ethereal, but there are examples which show how these things have been used to foster subtext.
The last chapter of the book threw me a bit. In the chapter “Loss of Face”, Charles Baxter makes the astute observation that authors don’t describe facial features the way they used to – specifically, the way authors used to use facial features to insinuate personality types. You know the ones. “Beady, shifting eyes…” “Strong chin…” “Smile so wide you could damn near land a plane on it…”
I agree that facial description isn’t done as much as it was, and it could/should be done more often. But I don’t agree that the face (or any physiology for that matter) should be considered an indicator of personality. Habits, perhaps, and expressions certainly, and I’m all for describing faces in more detail beyond hair and eye color. But the world will probably be a better place if we don’t encourage personality judgements based on human anatomy stereotypes. There are so many other effective tools available, that I’m not surprised facial description as representation of personality has fallen out of favor. In short, bring back facial descriptions, but leave the stereotypes to soulless marketing executives.
This is definitely not a beginners book. Like many higher level books on the craft of writing, The Art of Subtext does not necessarily give hard and fast advice with bullet-point lists and thin-red-lines. It is less of a ‘how to’ book, and more of a ‘this is the way masters of the craft have done it.’
Layered with personal anecdotes, examples from classic literature and poetry, The Art of Subtext is as pleasant to read as it is informative. It is a well-read and timely examination of an underused technique of master authors.
- The Art of Subtext on Amazon (Affiliate link – thanks for your support!)
- Charles Baxter – charlesbaxter.com
The Art of Subtext by Charles Baxter is a well-read examination of NOT writing what is there. – [Click to Tweet This!]
The Art of Subtext helps uncover the Loch Ness Monster of writing tools – writing the unwritten. – [Click to Tweet This!]
Add the power of Subtext to your writing toolkit. Check out The Art of Subtext by Charles Baxter. – [Click to Tweet This!]
The Art of… Series
The Art of Subtext is the first in a series of higher-level author-improvement books being released by Greywolf Press. I’ll review more books in this series here at conradzero.com as I read them. You can find other books in The Art of… series at the Greywolf Press website.