Monday Motivation: The secret beneath the words
“Meaning” is the thing that lies behind, or beneath, or beyond. The sighs of a lover are what we note. But the meaning of those sighs is what we interpret. The speed of our hero’s response to attack – I’m thinking of Jason Bourne during one of many such encounters – tells us about his qualifications as a hero. But the meaning of his skills lies in his murky past.
Meaning is always hidden. To disinter it, always requires acts of interpretation, speculation or investigation.
In life, the search for meaning might well be called humanity’s singular journey.
In creative writing of all kinds, meaning is what we don’t reveal, not directly. It is what’s hidden beneath the details, behind the events, beyond the incidents that we do reveal. And it bears the same relationship to what’s visible, that the subaquatic bulk of an iceberg does to what we can see above the surface.
Asking your reader to dig out the meaning of your story, entails asking her to become an active participant in the curious dance that takes place between the storyteller and his readers. The storyteller asks his reader to take note of what he writes, and to speculate and hypothecate about what the character really means, really wants, really intends. We do this in life every day, as we seek to discern the meaning of events, the agendas of people around us, and the possible futures before us.
Active, curious readers, remember, are more engaged with our stories. Active readers is what we all want.
Of course what I’m talking about is subtext – which in my view is one persuasive answer to the question: what are the secrets to great writing?
Subtext points the way to the true meaning of a character’s motivations, goals and vulnerabilities, that hidden dimension that lies between the lines of his dialogue. Meaning that can only be construed from what we, as writers, carefully calculate and insert into our text.
Language is what we say with our words, but subtext is what we really say, with our bodies with the tone of our voice, with our eyes and our expression. Subtext expresses our real feelings – for instance, feelings of impatience or distaste which may lurk beneath small talk and what one commentator called “compulsory politeness”. Subtext is the emotional history, intention and metaphor that drives to the heart of your story.
You can imagine a novel without dialogue. You can imagine a novel without elaborate description. You can even imagine (if you’re a postmodernist) a novel without characters or plot.
But can you imagine a novel without subtext, or meaning?
Always, with subtext, we know something more is going on. Something that’s unspoken, something that might be alluded to, but should never be spelled out. In fact, every drama, whether for the page or the screen, is built on layers of subtext.
It’s an indispensable ingredient of all engaging stories. It is, without question, one of the secrets to great writing.
This piece is based very substantially on a presentation I gave on our Writing Jamboree recently.
Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: Pick the right detail and a character springs to life‘