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Without a Word

By Cynthia Ruchti

Two passages diverged in a yellow wood.
And I…
I took the one with subtext
And that has made
All the difference.
(with apologies to Robert Frost)

When writing, critiquing, judging, or editing a story, attention to subtext can make all the difference. It deserves another look.
Song of Silence
When writing instructors talk about the elements that mark the distinction between amateurish versus professional-level writing, one of the factors often mentioned is the intelligent use of subtext.

Subtext is the unspoken message communicated without words, communicated through unexpected word choices, or what many call what lies “between the lines.”

Subtext is present in the scene, but unseen. Unheard. Or coded so only the reader is aware. It includes nonverbal cues, body language, action beats, and dialogue that seems out of the expected question/answer or statement/reaction rhythm.

When new writers wrestle with understanding show-don’t-tell concepts, subtext can help strengthen the show and can tell without a word.

The sound of Benton’s metal lunchbox colliding with the tabletop told her he was home from work, even before the kiss on her cheek that almost touched her skin.

“That’s not a day I want to relive,” he said.

Sarah stood at the stove, her grip on the saucepan handle tight enough to bleach her fingers white.

“Nope. Not a day I’d want to relive.” Chair legs scraped against the hardwood, the neutral smell of the kitchen now tinged with the odor of axle grease and exhaust fumes. “You asleep on your feet, Sarah? What did you plan for dinner?”

Sarah faced him. She slapped a raw pork chop, uncooked potato, and an unopened can of beans on the melamine plate in front of him. “A bubble bath. Solo. I planned a bubble bath.”

At the doorway, she turned. “You might want to warn her not to call you at home on my days off.” Sarah flicked off the kitchen ceiling light on her way out of the room.

The subtext, the unsaid or unexpressed, even when words are used, create a mood in this scene. Subtext heightens the tension and reveals what the repercussions are of action that is not expressed.

The kiss doesn’t land. She hears, but doesn’t see him enter the room. The room smells different, unpleasant, when he gets home. He says a leading line begging for a response, but she doesn’t respond. She’s gripping the handle of an empty saucepan. The food is slapped–raw–onto his plate. She flicks off the light, leaving him in darkness.

The author could have used words to tell how she felt, or had the character musing about what the phone call said, or included a dialogue exchange telling point-by-point how each was feeling or the reason for the tension in the air between them.

But subtext–reading between the lines, envisioning the unspoken–is what draws a reader into the scene so we feel raw pork on our fingers and remnants of its grease on the light switch.

Cynthia Ruchti 2016Cynthia Ruchti tells stories hemmed-in-hope through award-winning novels, novellas, devotions, nonfiction, and speaking events for women. Her latest release is Song of Silence from Abingdon Press. You can imagine how much subtext is in a book with that title. 🙂 cynthiaruchti.com or facebook.com/cynthiaruchtireaderpage.

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4 Responses to Without a Word

  1. Cindy Huff says:

    Loved this post. The example of subtext really brought the point home. Thanks.

  2. Thanks, Cindy! I appreciate the comment.

  3. Melissa says:

    Very interesting. 🙂

  4. Patricia S says:

    Wonderful example! Really makes me want to see what happens next.