Just in time for All Hallows Eve, a big full moon rose over the mountains last night, a reminder that there’s no better time to talk about subtext. At Halloween, the subconscious comes forward, and we confront our fears in gruesome detail. It’s a time to celebrate haunting, which is how subtext works in a narrative.
In The Art of Subtext, Charles Baxter explains the ways in which subtext haunts a text: hyperdetailing of what’s not fully known, the unbidden return of certain aspects of the story, the half-noticed and half-heard. He describes how subtext is often rendered through super-vigilant observers, children like Harper Lee’s Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. In subtext, as in haunting, genuine desires are often hidden; the ghost that wants you to go away communicates in a barely discernable voice.
As hauntings horrify, so does subtext: any unthinkable thought qualifies, according to Baxter. Ghosts behave badly, and so do characters caught up in subtext. “Stories thrive on bad behavior, bad manners, confrontations, and unpalatable characters who by wish or compulsion make their desires visible by creating scenes,” Baxter says. When it comes to subtext, think poltergeist, not
Casper with his jovial antics.
For awhile I was working on a novel that involved a ghost, which gave me a wonderful excuse to watch ghost shows on TV. I became quite a snob about it: all but the Syfy Channel’s Ghost Hunter series I deemed too hyped and far out. Week after week, I watched the Ghost Hunter team set up in haunted places and shut out the lights. They spent the night listening, watching, waiting, and occasionally cajoling the ghosts, expressing sympathy for their troubles as a way of drawing them out. In a recent issue of Author Magazine, author Jennifer Paros in “Being a Whisperer: Gentleness over Force” discusses how writers work best this way, too, to draw out the most haunting aspects of their prose.
Paying close attention to your text is one of the best ways to discover and maximize the subtext that haunts it. Watch for revealed, excessive detailing. Note the characters who refuse to go to the heart of a matter, who insist on their blind spots and mental bubbles and thus prolong their own anguish. Connect with your subconscious, which is often smarter than your ego. Rely on good readers and multiple revisions to find motifs and linked themes in your writing, and the subtext that haunts your work will make itself known.