Shhhh! We Can’t Talk About It!


#Subtext in life and fiction often refers to the words not said, words, we can’t express to others and sometimes, not even to ourselves. It relates to those buried thoughts and emotions we try to hide.

            Pete Turner, the main character in my #suspense/thriller #THE POISON CUP, can’t talk about what really drives his hate for his Uncle Farley Oaks, a man the entire community professes to admire and respect. He can’t speak of it to his brother, Robert, or his best friend, Jennings. In a conversation with Robert that propels Pete on a dangerous journey for revenge, Pete cannot, as Robert puts it, state his case against Farley. 

“…Daddy’s opinion of Farley is not something I’m going to carry on. I have nothing against him.”

Pete looked up. “You should. You should have something against him.”

“Are you going to let Daddy’s dislike of Farley affect your life forever?”

“It’s more than that.”

“Then what? If you’re going to abuse the man, you have to state your case.”

Pete began to pace. “It’s…It’s…” But he couldn’t find the words to express his guilt, his failure to protect his sister and the Turner name. It was too hideous to reveal. If he didn’t speak it, if no one knew…but Farley knew, and that’s why he had to die. Pete swallowed. “Daddy could see beneath Farley’s exterior. We should both hate him.” 

            Pete thinks he wants to kill Farley, and like Ahab’s great white whale, Pete is willing to risk everything for the chance to get that imagined satisfaction. In actuality, he wants peace of mind; he wants a life; he wants romance with Myra Claire, but the past and Farley loom large, and he cannot see beyond them.

            In life, we try to project an image, that groomed side of us we want others to see. We protect our egos with a cloak of pride to cover our humiliations, fears, and deepest wounds from truths about ourselves we can’t face so that we can keep them imprisoned as deep in our subconscious as Eurydice in Hades. According to #Charles Baxter in #THE ART OF SUBTEXT, “we are all obtuse about the self-contradictions that are closest to us and that we are most sensitive about.”

            But alas! Our secrets slip to the surface when we unconsciously avert our eyes or slump our shoulders, tap nervous fingers or take on a faraway look. Believable characters also give away secrets through body language or giveaway actions like nervously changing the subject when the conversation is getting too close for comfort. Also, the writer can use excessive detailing to signal subtext. In THE POISON CUP, the scene where Pete is shackled to a ball and chain is “staged” to suggest his deeper, emotional imprisonment.

            Baxter defines #staging as “putting characters in specific strategic positions in the scene so that some unvoiced nuance is revealed.” Staging may include how close or how far away the characters are from each other, what their particular gestures and facial expressions might be at moments of dramatic emphasis, exactly how their words are said, and what props appear inside or outside the scene. Excessive detailing is a signpost.

A visual example Baxter gives is from #Robert Frost’s poem #“Home Burial” about a deep, ongoing domestic quarrel. The “prop” is the cramped stairway signaling the couples’ stunted relationship; the wife’s imprisoning, pent-up emotions and inability to express them.

            Subtest, what a character does not say, can be more revealing than what he says.


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