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Text and subtext

Text and subtext

It seems like an age ago already – two or three British Prime Minsters back – but last week we talked about how even novels that aren’t about spying are nevertheless about deception and false-surfaces and subtexts. I want to talk a bit more about that in a second, but first a couple of bits of housekeeping.

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Right. Back to deceptions and subtexts.

One classic-classic example of a novel founded on just such an idea is Pride & Prejudice. Take, for example, the first Darcy / Lizzie Bennet proposal scene. He says he’s prepared to marry her, despite her terrible family. She refuses, heatedly and proudly. But what’s really happened here? Is he truly as arrogant as he appears. (Answer: no, clearly not.) And is she correct in thinking she could never love this man? (Ditto.) The joy of the scene, and the book, is our ability to unpeel the layers from the clues Jane Austen provides.

A similar and classic-in-a-way example would be the whole love triangle in Bridget Jones’s Diary. Who will capture Bridget’s heart – the charming bounder Hugh Grant, or the stiff and apparently aloof Colin Firth character? Again, part of the reader’s joy is teasing apart the clues that reveal who each man really is.

And, to be clear, this clue-building is HARD.

You have to:

  • Paint a plausible picture that paints Man A – let’s say Jane Austen’s Darcy – as arrogant and cold;
  • Offer clues that he’s not only that;
  • Do a big reveal which shows a man that you could really, really fall in love with. (And no, the reveal can’t just be a country house that’s twice the size of Buckingham Palace.)
  • Make sure that the whole thing feels plausible and true, not just tricksy.

The last element is – for me, at any rate – particularly important. Over the past decade, there’s been an upsurge in psychological thrillers, where the general theme is something like: Sweet nurse Betsy seems like the person everyone turns to in a crisis but, because of [insert concealed childhood trauma here], Betsy is really a [insert nature of horrible crime here.]

Sometimes, of course, that structure works just fine. But very often, it feels OK at a mechanical level only. So yes, you can, in theory, get your head around the idea that someone who (let’s say) was kicked by a horse in childhood might want to secretly harm horses today.

But that works better in a theoretical way than a practical one. Loads of people hang out with horses as kids. Inevitably, those people get kicked from time to time. The ones I know in that category are still potty about horses and certainly aren’t animal abusers.

So a non-mechanical version of that story has to layer things in a way that we can see the shape of the first character (nice, sweet Betsy) in the shape of the finally revealed one (evil, animal-killing Betsy.) Sometimes, that clue-development is sheer genius: the prime modern example is Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Other times, as I say, the whole book ends up feeling like rusty cogs turning against each other and no real human insight.

But it’s a mistake to think only about the big elements of plot here. This theme of readers figuring out a character happens all the time in good fiction. Teasing out text and subtext is a huge part of why readers read. (And if that process involves a nice romance, or a few good corpses, or a first-rate terror plot, then so much the better.)

I was searching around for a good example. I wanted something where we felt subtext plucking at the text all the time.

I looked at a few books and, in the good ones, that text/subtext tension happens pretty much all the time – certainly when any two people are encountering each other. Then I realised that I had the perfect example on my own computer.

Page 1, Chapter 1 of the Fiona Griffiths series reports Fiona’s interview for the South Wales Police.

Nothing happens.


She has applied for a job. By the end of the interview, it’s clear that she’s going to get it. All that “story = conflict” stuff just doesn’t make an appearance. At no stage during the (very brief) interview is it remotely suggested that she should not get a job.

At a surface level, the text isn’t kinetic at all. There’s no glimmer of story, or not until the very final line. You could argue that the chapter doesn’t obey any of the classic rules of story-telling.

And yet? The book had multi-publisher auctions in multiple territories. In the US, my editor – one of the leading names in crime – told me that she knew she had to buy the book after a couple of pages.

So something was happening, and it wasn’t story.

It was text vs subtext.

That’s it from me. I think it’s probably my turn to be Prime Minister soon, or at least Home Secretary, so my next email will come from a very shiny desk somewhere in London.


Interview, October 2006

Beyond the window, I can see three kites hanging in the air over Bute Park. One blue, one yellow, one pink. Their shapes are precise, as though stencilled. From this distance, I can’t see the lines that tether them, so when the kites move, it’s as though they’re doing so of their own accord. An all-encompassing sunlight has swallowed depth and shadow.

I observe all this as I wait for DCI Matthews to finish rearranging the documents on his desk. He shuffles the last file from the stack before him to a chair in front of the window. The office is still messy, but at least we can see each other now.

‘There,’ he says.

I smile. [fake smile – we already feel it. Matthews hasn’t done anything to make her smile.]

He holds up a sheet of paper. The printed side is facing him, but against the light from the window I see the shape of my name at the top. I smile again, not because I feel like smiling but because I can’t think of anything sensible to say. This is an interview. My interviewer has my CV. What does he want me to do? Applaud? [Aha! We were right about that fake smile. Here she is thinking sarcastic thoughts about a senior police officer.]

He puts the CV down on the desk in the only empty patch available. He starts to read it through line by line, marking off each section with his forefinger as he does so. Education. A levels. University. Interests. Referees.

His finger moves back to the centre of the page. University. [Hmm. We’re wondering if there’s a big reveal here. This is the first time this wandering narrative seems to have had found a centre of interest.]


I nod.

‘Why are we here? What’s it all about? That sort of thing?’ [ie: The pop version of philosophy. Not a very testing question. We don’t quite get what the interview purpose is here.]

‘Not exactly. More like, what exists? What doesn’t exist? How do we know whether it exists or not? Things like that.’ [FG instantly corrects to a more technical definition of academic philosophy. That’s giving us a clue that FG is probably smart – but it’s also waving a flag to say that the nature of existence is at play in this book. It’s promising some depth. You couldn’t sensibly have a start like this and then dive into a James Patterson novel.]

‘Useful for police work.’ [Again, not much of an interview question, but we do feel as though something’s beginning to move here. This non-interview interview is beginning to generate data.]

‘Not really. I don’t think it’s useful for anything much, except maybe teaching us to think.’ [Is this conflict? Not really. But it’s interesting that the first thing that even resembles an interview question is just batted away by Fiona. She’s being given an opportunity to sell herself here, and declines it. Why? And again, the emphasis on thinking: this tells us, doesn’t it?, that Fiona is smart and cares about things of the mind.]

Matthews is a big man. Not gym-big, but Welsh-big, with the sort of comfortable muscularity that suggests a past involving farm work, rugby and beer. He has remarkably pale eyes and thick dark hair. Even his fingers have little dark hairs running all the way to the final joint. He is the opposite of me. [Wow! What a thing to say. I mean, of course there are ways that big-man / small-woman are opposites, but Fiona’s surely saying more than that? We probably don’t quite have enough data to figure out what’s going on, but “opposite of me” probably means the opposite of “comfortable muscularity” and “farm work, rugby and beer”. So what is the opposite of that? We don’t know, but our subtext monitors are sucking this stuff up trying to build a picture.]

‘Do you think you have a realistic idea of what police work involves?’ [First actual interview question]

I shrug. I don’t know. How are you meant to know if you haven’t done it? I say the sort of thing that I think I’m meant to say. I’m interested in law enforcement. I appreciate the value of a disciplined, methodical approach. Blah, blah. Yadda, yadda. Good little girl in her dark grey interview outfit saying all the things she’s meant to say. [First actual interview answer, but we sense Fiona’s lack of interest in what she says. She doesn’t in fact even bother to tell us.]

‘You don’t think you might get bored?’

‘Bored?’ I laugh with relief. That’s what he was probing at. ‘Maybe. I hope so. I quite like a little boredom.’ Then, worried he might feel I am being arrogant – prize-winning Cambridge philosopher sneers at stupid policeman – I backtrack. ‘I mean, I like things orderly. Is dotted, ts crossed. If that involves some routine work, then fine. I like it.’ [Ah! So this is interesting. We were right that Fiona’s smart – she’s won philosophy prizes at Cambridge. But she really wants the job. She’s stressed about it. Hence the relief. Hence the anxiety to make the answer right.]

His finger is still on the CV, but it’s tracked up an inch or so. A levels. [Why an inch? British teenagers do A-level exams at roughly age 18. What happened then?] He leaves his finger there, fixes those pale eyes on me and says, ‘Do you have any questions for me?’

I know that’s what he’s meant to say at some stage, but we’ve got forty-five minutes allocated for this interview and we’ve only used ten at the outside, most of which I’ve spent watching him shift stationery around his office. Because I’m taken by surprise – and because I’m still a bit rubbish at these things [Still, why still? What is she referring to?] – I say the wrong thing.

‘Questions? No.’ There’s a short gap in which he registers surprise and I feel like an idiot. ‘I mean, I want the job. I don’t have any questions about that.’ [Is this the first completely authentic moment from Fiona/ It feels like it. His surprise and her feeling of idiocy sort of confirm that. Why does she want the job so much? She’s very bright. She could do anything. Why this?]

His turn to smile. A real one, not fake ones like mine. [Confirmation that she has been faking for most of this process.]

‘You do. You really do.’ He makes that a statement not a question. For a DCI, he’s not very good at asking questions. [Except – he IS good, isn’t he? He’s teased out truth from someone disinclined to offer it.] I nod anyway.

‘And you’d probably quite like it if I didn’t ask you about a two-year gap in your CV, around the time of your A levels.’

I nod again, more slowly. Yes, I would quite like it if you didn’t ask about that.

[Wow! What was that about? We don’t know. Neither person seems like they want to divulge more.]

‘Human resources know what’s going on there, do they?’

‘Yes. I’ve already been into that with them. I was ill. Then I got better.’ [A very empty, non-informative answer.]

‘Who in human resources?’

‘Katie. Katie Andrews.’

‘And the illness?’ [That’s a real question.]

I shrug. ‘I’m fine now.’ [And that definitely doesn’t answer it. This door is nailed shut.]

A non-answer. I hope he doesn’t push further, and he doesn’t. He checks with me who’s interviewed me so far. The answer is, pretty much everyone. This session with Matthews is the final hurdle.

‘OK. Your father knows you’re applying for this job?’ [Weird question]


‘He must be pleased.’ [Ditto. Why the repetition? Why is he asking this?]

Another statement in place of a question. I don’t answer it. [Another closed door. Another refusal to divulge.]

Matthews examines my face intently. Maybe that’s his interview technique. Maybe he doesn’t ask his suspects any questions, he just makes statements and scrutinises their faces in the wide open light from the big Cardiff sky.

‘We’re going to offer you a job, you know that?’ [Huh? What? At one level, nothing has been asked or answered. Or rather: the only thing that actually has been asked & answered was about her really, really wanting the job.]

‘You are?’

‘Of course we are. Coppers aren’t thick, but you’ve got more brains than anyone else in this building. You’re fit. You don’t have a record. You were ill for a time as a teenager, but you’re fine now. You want to work for us. Why wouldn’t we hire you?’ [OK, fair enough. Maybe this interview has been reasonably rational after all.]

I could think of a couple of possible answers to that, but I don’t volunteer them. [More non-disclosure. What does behind those doors? We want to know now.] I’m suddenly aware of being intensely relieved, which scares me a bit, because I wasn’t aware of having been anxious. [She’s scared by being relieved? That’s a bit much isn’t it? Another clue to tuck away for later.] I’m standing up. Matthews has stood up too and comes towards me, shaking my hand and saying something. His big shoulders block my view of Bute Park and I lose sight of the kites. Matthews is talking about formalities and I’m blathering answers back at him, but my attention isn’t with any of that stuff. I’m going to be a policewoman. And just five years ago, I was dead.

[OK, those last two sentences do give us a waft of story – finally! The penultimate sentence says “Don’t worry, readers, this IS going to be a crime novel.” The final sentence says – what? We don’t know. She can’t have been dead, because she’s alive now. But we do now want to know what lies behind that statement – the subtext beneath the text. As far as I can see, that text/subtext battle is the only reason that someone might want to read beyond this first chapter, because it offers essentially nothing else. And even on the text/subtext thing, it mostly shows us doors that feel completely closed. And, funnily enough, this text/subtext opening is true to the book itself. Yes, there’s a traditional crime mystery here. (Corpses, investigation, solution.) But the real mystery is Fiona herself and we don’t fully unlock that until the very end of the book.]

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  1. How interesting to see this chapter with annotations – it’s really helpful to analyse the text this way. Lots to absorb and think about.

    I also find this emboldening as my own WIP (75k words into draft 1) begins with a young woman talking to her boss and she has also studied Philosophy in the past! From reading this excerpt, I can see that I can/need to do a lot more on the MC in my own Chapter 1. I’m heavily focused on the action, as Something Very Exciting is about to happen, but I should probably weave in more intrigue and emotion about my main character, to make the reader care about her from the get-go. Thanks.

  2. Hi Harry – excellent piece as ever. May I ask you about your choice to write First Person, Present Tense.

    I’ve written my latest MS as this and have been listening to Debi Alper’s and Emma Darwin’s formidable expertise on Psychic Distance and their advice that First Person, Present Tense can make PD tricky to handle. I think I have got a good enough reason for telling my story First Person, Present Tense (she’s a ghost but doesn’t yet know this) …

    So! What are your thoughts on this? Why did you choose First Person, Present Tense for your books? What did you sacrifice because of this decision (and conversely what did you gain?)

    Thanks in advance! 🙂

  3. I still rate Talking to the Dead as one of the finest detective novels I’ve ever read. And that’s all about Fiona, and the way the reader has to work at her subtext to piece her together. It carries on through the series, and keeps adding that bit extra. I get bored by straight procedural detective novels, but I could never get bored reading these, because the characterisation (not just Fiona) is so good.