I recently read a book by Charles Baxter called The Art of Subtext – Beyond Plot. Subtext is what is not said, not told but implied.
Plot is a twisting bridge over a chasm, says Baxter, a chasm that, in my mind, contains the hauntings, the past, the subterranean, the things people either cannot or will not say, things that we are only partially aware of.
To use subtext, all you have to do is explore that chasm.
Specific Details are Essential
To evoke the unseen requires spotting the myriad of details, Baxter mentions.
Do you mention the dim hall of the arcade or the bright displays of sale items, or both?
Do you mention the flowers in the vase by name, or by color, or by scent or by any combination of those?
Do you mention the polished table under the vase and the crocheted doily upon which it sits?
Do you mention the fact that some of the flowers are dropping their petals?
Staging: Crowd Your Characters for Drama
How the characters are arranged in the scene is also important to Baxter.
How are the angry couple standing or sitting at the beginning of the argument?
How are they at the end?
Does the child being read to at night lean back into his parent, twisting a lock of hair, his eyes closing? Or does he sit forward with his fist clenched bouncing on his knees?
All of this detail speaks into the story, and all of this detail makes writing hard work. However, I think our stories are worth the effort.
How to Bring Out the Soul of a Story
Baxter’s book goes much further than I can write about here. He covers not just staging (and he suggests crowding your characters for dramatic results), but also what the characters cannot or will not say, and even how things are said (inflections, facial expressions). He talks about what the characters notice and what they don’t. And he talks about faces and what is revealed when the masks fall.
But the most important thing I got was that you have to use explicit details to shine a light on the soul of the story. Those details should be carefully considered. I don’t think each word needs to be considered before it is written, but I think scenes need to be roughed out and then improved upon over and over again. Some of the original words will stand at the end. Most will not. That has been my experience anyway.
Reading this book made me both excited and exhausted at the same time.
Pick a moment of crisis, an argument or fight, something lost or stolen, or an injury to someone. Think about where the characters are, what they are saying, how they move. Think about the details of this scene for a good while before you begin to write.
Then, write for fifteen minutes and let the details tell the story (or start a story for you).
Comment on other people’s exercises and try to see what the details are pointing to.