Why shouldn’t characters speak their mind?
Isn’t that what we should all be doing in real life?
While this would make for more honest relationships, it is rare to find people saying exactly what they are feeling. Instead, they use sarcasm, drop hints, clam up or use a variety of passive-aggressive tactics to mask their true feelings. So, it makes sense for writers to use subtext, body language and tone of voice in their works of fiction. Adding those extra layers ensures that the characters are believable while fully engaging the reader.
Consider the following excerpt from the opening chapter of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Author Rachel Joyce effectively uses subtext to convey volumes about the relationship between recently retired Harold and his wife Maureen.
“Well?” said Maureen again.
“Good lord. It’s from Queenie Hennessy.”
Maureen speared a nugget of butter with her knife and flattened it the length of her toast. “Queenie who?
“She worked in the brewery. Years ago. Don’t you remember?
Maureen shrugged. “I don’t see why I should. I don’t know why I’d remember someone from years ago. Could you pass the jam?”
“She was in finances. She was very good.”
“That’s the marmalade, Harold. Jam is red. If you look at things before you pick them up, you’ll find it helps.”
Harold passed her what she needed and returned to his letter. Beautifully set out, of course; nothing like the muddled writing on the envelope. Then he smiled, remembering this was how it always was with Queenie: everything she did so precise you couldn’t fault it. “She remembers you. She sends her regards.”
Maureen’s mouth pinched into a bead. “A chap on the radio was saying the French want our bread. They can’t get it sliced in France. They come over here and they buy it up. The chap said there might be a shortage by summer.” She paused. “Harold? Is something the matter?”
He said nothing. He drew up tall with his lips parted, his face bleached. His voice, when at least it came, was small and far away. “It’s—cancer. Queenie is writing to say goodbye.” He fumbled for more words but there weren’t any. Tugging a handkerchief from his trouser pocket, Harold blew his nose. “I um. Gosh.” Tears crammed his eyes.
Moments passed; maybe minutes. Maureen gave a swallow that smacked the silence. “I’m sorry,” she said.
He nodded. He ought to look up, but he couldn’t.
“It’s a nice morning,” she began again. “Why don’t you fetch out the patio chairs?” But he sat, not moving, not speaking, until she lifted the dirty plates. Moments later the vacuum cleaner took up from the hall.