Monday Motivation: On truth, subtext, and good writing

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

I recently read a book called Moneyland, in which Oliver Bullough explores the many and ingenious ways in which the world’s superrich hide their wealth and avoid paying taxes. It’s as if the wealthy have contrived to create an alternate reality, the existence of which is concealed from the great majority of us.

This “secret” has been institutionalized. Entire industries have sprung up to enable it. Banks keep their clients’ records safe from prying eyes – safe, in many instances even from revenue collecting agencies. Whole countries offer sanctuary to flows of dodgy money. Others offer citizenship to wealthy individuals with a promise not to pry too deeply into the source of their wealth.

But keeping secrets is second nature to us humans. When we’re very young our inclination is to blurt out the truth. “Why are you so fat, Auntie Mavis?” a child might say. Only later does he learn that Auntie Mavis, the source of regular birthday and Christmas presents, can be coaxed to be more generous by regular doses of flattery. The truth, we learn, doesn’t necessarily pay.

And so, dear readers, sub-text is born. We lie, we dissemble, we flatter. We concoct a froth of lies to conceal what we believe is the less palatable truth.

“How are you?” asks an acquaintance, apparently in pursuit of the truth.

“Very well,” I respond vigorously, apparently eager to impart a truth.

But, in truth, neither the question or the answer to it bears very much relation to either the demand for or the supply of truthful information. Both my acquaintance and I recognize that the interchange is mere social lubricant. The truth could be a positive barrier to our real agendas, which might be entirely related to our individual self-interest.

When you invite a friend to express an opinion about, oh, let us say, a piece of your writing, pay careful attention to their response. She might say, “Oh, it’s wonderful!” Or, she might say, “I just loved the Auntie Mavis character. Such an old meanie!” Or, she might say, “I was so surprised by how that scene ended. Such a twist!”

What they’re highly unlikely to say is what they really felt. “The writing felt a bit stodgy.” Or: “What a two-dimensional character that Aunt Mavis is. You’ve still got a lot of work to do to bring her to life.” Or: “The end of the scene seemed to be unrelated to the beginning.” Or, out of left field entirely: “I was offended by the swearwords. Did you really have to use so many of them?”

You invite opinions at your peril, because, if the subject involved is at all personal, the answers you receive, while they might bear some relation to the true opinion of your friend, will, in all likelihood be fairly far removed from it.

This makes life complicated. It means that a great deal of our understanding of other people, and other people’s views, and other people’s opinions, is based on interpretation.

But it makes the writer’s life more interesting. Because subtext is the meat and drink of drama. Let me quote you the very opening lines of a book entirely devoted to subtext*:

“In drama, more than any other art form, people don’t say what they mean. It isn’t always a lie. It isn’t always fudging or denying the truth. Sometimes characters think they’re telling the truth. Sometimes they don’t know the truth. Sometimes they don’t feel comfortable expressing the truth…”

Beneath the words, is the subtext. It is, in Linda Seger’s words, “the real, unadulterated truth. The text is the tip of the iceberg, but the subtext is everything underneath that bubbles up and informs the text.”

So that’s our challenge. What our characters say is not necessarily what they mean. What they mean is, at best, only implied, only suggested. The big mistake we’re all capable of, in life as in writing, is to imagine that people and characters speak the truth. We say of a friend who believes all the promises that politicians make that he’s naïve.

We say of a writer who has her character utter the unadulterated truth that she’s writing “on the nose”. We could, with equal truth, say that she’s naïve.

So let’s all become more sophisticated – and so, perhaps, a little less credulous – in our writing.

Happy writing,


* Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath, by Linda Seger.

(By the way, we offer literary assessments on pieces of writing, if you’re looking for professional feedback that is honest but kind.)

Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: The vast canvas calls, but don’t neglect the miniature

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