Subtext: The Story beneath the Story

Our living is full of subtext. In a work of fiction or nonfiction, a writer is wise to pay attention to Henry James’s advice: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.” The writer’s job is to know the story taking place beneath the observable story. Often the resonance of a piece comes from the moment in which the deeper story emerges. Perhaps, its appearance startles the main character—suddenly someone knows something previously unrecognized, whether deliberately or ignorantly. At other times, the awareness belongs to the reader who now knows something the main character still doesn’t. No matter the case, characters’ lives hinge on these moments where the subtext can no longer be denied. Sometimes the characters are aware of that fact, and sometimes, in a more ironic approach, they’re not, but we are.

A writer has to be a close observer of people and the contexts within which their words and actions matter. We have to hear what’s not being said beneath what is. We have to be aware of the unspoken nuances that prompt our characters’ actions. It really comes down to a matter of the narrative we’re watching unfold and the one that’s rising up through it.

Yesterday, my wife and I were waiting in line at a department store to pay for our purchase. Ahead of us in line were two young men, one black and one white. I’d say they were each somewhere between twelve and fourteen years-old. They were on a shopping spree—two large bags from other stores in the mall sat on the floor at their feet—and they were paying for their purchase with cash. The black kid was paying for some socks, and the woman taking the money was a middle-aged white woman. The other clerk working the register was a middle-aged black man. I only mention the race of everyone involved because it comes into play in the rest of the story.

The female clerk shook out a bag to put the socks in, but the kid buying them, said, “I don’t need a bag,” and he reached for the socks. The woman was about to give them to him, but then the male clerk, the middle-aged black man, said to the kid, “Whoa up there. You need a bag.” The kid said, “Nah, it’s okay,” and he gestured to the bags at his feet. The male clerk said, “No, really, trust me. . . .” That’s when the female clerk interrupted him. “He’ll have his receipt,” she said. The male clerk ignored her and said to the kid, “Listen up. It’s always smart to have what you buy in a bag.” And the female clerk shut him down. “Geez,” she said. “Just chill.” She handed the kid the socks. He put them in one of his other shopping bags, and he and his friend walked away. The male clerk said no more.

I’ll leave the facts of this narrative for your consideration. Think about the story being told beneath those observable facts. Think about what wasn’t said. Think about what motivated words and deeds. Think about who was aware of what, and who wasn’t. Think about who made conscious choices to speak or act, or not to speak or act. Think about who remained unaware of the submerged narrative and how because the male clerk said, “Whoa up there,” that narrative rose to the surface.

If you’d like a writing prompt, tell this story in a piece of flash fiction. Whose point of view would you use? Would you extend the story beyond the facts as I’ve presented them? Would you use the interiority of your point of view character to acknowledge the narrative that provides the subtext, or would you choose a point of view character who remains unaware? In that case, how would you make the reader aware of what that character doesn’t know, or doesn’t want to recognize?





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