Subtext….. aka That’s Not What I Meant!

When I sit down and write I obviously know what I want to say.  It might take some tweaking during the editing and revision phases, but the intent is always obvious.  To me anyway.  That’s where it all falls down though and the next person that reads the book/paragraph/dialogue may leave with a totally different impression.  Some would argue that this is totally avoidable and that the fault is the writers.  Hmmmm.  I’m not convinced it’s that cut and dried.

We live in an international world where books may be read by anyone, from all different spectrums of race, status and language.  It’s common for people whose first language isn’t English to hone their skills and broaden their scope with a book written in that language.   Likewise there are adult books that are read by children and children’s books that are read by adults.

Which all adds up to a whole heap of scope for misinterpretation.  Add into the mix our ever evolving culture and you’re just asking for that innocuous statement or comment made by a character to be mis-read.  This isn’t just evident in books, pretty much any medium such as film and TV also have the same scope.  How many times have you watched a film with someone and had a differing opinion on the moral/story/end result.  If it can happen when two people who likely know each other well and are from a similar background watch the same thing then it can happen when disparate people are involved.

There are obviously scenarios where during the course of a book there is mis-interpretation placed there on purpose (and I did it in my first novel) and that’s not an issue, if anything its common place.  But what if that seemingly innocent statement or description you place is determined by some to be racist, or homophobic or similar?  During the course of doing some research for this post (yes, it may come as a shock that I do some occasionally!) I discovered that Albus Dumbledore was gay.

Say what?  I might not be the most observant reader in the world, but that one went straight past me (if you’ll pardon the pun).  Oh and for reference it’s from this article on Wikipedia under the heading ‘Dumbledore’s Sexual Orientation’.  Who knew.  Not me that’s for sure, but plenty of other people picked up on it.  It makes not one bit of difference to me whether he’s straight, gay or walks around in a taffeta ball gown after hours with a crystal wand and tiara, but I’m pretty sure I’ll go back and read the books again now and see if I really did miss something.  Of course this revelation then sends one group of people off championing the character and another condemning and all from the same text.

There obviously isn’t an answer to this.  As society evolves some things become unacceptable that were fine previously, whether that’s what the author intended or not (and there are enough examples that I’m not going to specify for fear of placing unintentional subtext in this post).  But the issue remains as to how we as writers can stop the mis-understanding or the reading of subtext that isn’t there.  Short of making sure every little thing that could possibly be misconstrued is subject to some sort of ‘basil exposition’ explaining exactly what we mean, and let’s face it if you had to repeat the same piece of dialogue three times in slightly different ways to get the point across it would get boring.  And someone would only interpret it in the way they wanted anyway if they were that way inclined.

Based on what I’ve read over the course of the last hour I’m not sure it’s possible at all.  Sure we can take out anything that’s glaring and our beta readers may point things out but there’s always something that’s going to slip through.  I’d welcome your comments and opinions as always.

PS: Anyone up for spot the subtext in this post?  If you find one it proves my point, if you don’t then I’ve just been ultra careful!



6 comments on “Subtext….. aka That’s Not What I Meant!

  1. You’ve made some very good points in this post. No reader comes to the act of reading with a blank slate. Everyone has had some kind of experience, which colours their perspective of what they are reading. Everyone has their own opinions about things, too, which may influence the way they read something. Whether you like it or not, people will judge your writing either in a good way, a bad way or indifferently. It’s the nature of the beast. We, as writers, do need to be careful and keep our target audience in mind. For example, when writing for children or young adults, we should be mindful of our use of language, keeping swears and sexual connotations to a minimum. If we don’t want to be considered a bigot, we should adjust our words accordingly. I do think, however, that there is taking political correctness a bit too far. Subtext can either be what we make it or what our readers interpret from it. All we can do is write what we write and hope no one takes offense and if they do, well, I suppose that’s their problem. 🙂

    • Agreed, I think the point I was trying to make was the hidden subtext isn’t always obvious, but in this day and age it only takes one person to pick up something that isn’t there (or wasn’t intended to be there at the very least) and before you know it you’ve got potentially hundreds of people with a viewpoint that doesn’t exist 🙂 And I agree completely with your last point – sadly the overtly active PC brigade can make anything, even the most innocuous comment into something it isn’t! I hope I’ve never offended anyone, but I seriously don’t think it’s possible. You can please some people……

  2. You never know what an individual reader is going to bring to the table. Even if there is subtext purposely written in to a piece, there’s no guarantee that it will be understood. Nor can we assume zero subtext will be taken as such. To me that’s the beauty of reading and writing. Stories may be intended one way, but they may be effective on levels we never imagined, which in turn inspires new directions. 🙂

    • Couldn’t agree more, everyone brings their own bias, prejudices and experiences to bear on anything. In some ways it’s nice exploring things like subtext with other people as you can almost guarantee multiple views on the same piece of dialogue. It’s nice to believe that we can unintentionally introduce subtext that people will think about, I think what bothers me though is that things are brought out of the text that was never there that are negative. As mywithershins pointed out though, if something offends it’s not necessarily the fault of the author but may be down their own sensibilities. It’s an interesting talking point though, even though there isn’t an answer!:-)

    • Yes, agreed. You can’t make people read things the way you intended, although that’s probably half of the fun of it, seeing how people interpret things 🙂

      As you can see (if you read earlier) I’ve found the edit button. Sheesh, you wouldn’t believe I work in IT would you!

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