Things Left Unspoken

Photo: Chris Halderman
Photo: Chris Halderman

Once upon a time in a galaxy far away a dead end job three lifetimes ago  my boss had a motivational speaker come in. The man said two things that day that have proved more beneficial than the entire five years I spent in that job.

The first was that Algebra equals Life in that we are always trying to balance the equation and solve for the unknown. But for those of you who have mathphobias, don’t worry, I will not be talking about that today.

The second thing he said, and something I think is particularly useful for writers, was this:

That which is unspoken defines the relationship.


Think about that for a moment.

Those things you won’t talk about.

The apology never given.

The explanation never provided.

The promise never followed through on.

The secret never shared.

Those are what define the boundaries and contours of our relationships. The lines we will not cross. The conversations we will never allow ourselves to have. The intimacy we will never share. All the restrictions that will be imposed on our relationships because of the unspoken things that lie between us.

We humans are very, very good at not saying what truly bothers us and instead attack tangentially.

When we fight with our spouse over whose turn it is to do the dishes, it is rarely about the dishes. It’s more often about:

  •  The distribution of labor.
  • Financial imbalances.
  • Fear someone is not as invested in the relationship as we are
  • Worries over who cares more

Even if the fight doesn’t have its roots in a big issue, it can often still not be about the dishes. Instead, it can be the equivalent of a stress tic. When we’re stressed, we kvetch, grumble, and find ways to siphon off that unhappiness without having to actually deal with it.

Any argument is usually rife with this sort of subtext.

The unspoken things that affect our relationships can also be those truths we keep from ourselves rather than the other person. We often hate most in others things that we fear in ourselves. Either it is a trait we possess and work hard to suppress or weed out or ignore. Or it’s a trait we fear we possess and to admit such a thing is too painful. We can’t speak that truth—even to ourselves—so it defines and colors and influences our relationships with each other. In this case, it is our own unacknowledged shadow self that has the bulk of the power in our relationship.

Fellow writers? This is a motherlode for us fiction writers. If we can give our readers the sense that what happens on the page is not about what appears to be happening on the page, they will be hooked, hungry to read on and find out what is really going on.

Think about the key relationships in your own life. I’m betting that in every one of those there is something you simply don’t talk about, whether by tacit or implicit agreement.

Now look at your story. Do your characters have those sorts of relationships? The sort filled with ticking timebombs or swampy places they dare not tread? If they do, the book will be much richer for it.

But, you might ask, if the strength of those unspoken emotions lie with them being, well, unspoken, then how do we get those undercurrents on the page?

Dramatic action is our friend. Not car chases or fist fights—or any fight scenes, necessarily—but those moments when physical actions, often simple ones, are imbued with emotional meaning. Most especially actions that are at odds with what the character is saying.

  •  Scrubbing dishes so hard one breaks.
  •  Stirring coffee so forcefully it spills over.
  • Walking so fast you find yourself out of breath.
  • Driving past the intended offramp.
  • Saying something too forcefully.
  • Or too casually.
  • Being “distracted” by something else and therefore not having to give your full attention.
  • Out of character responses—walking away from a fight when you normally engage or flying off the handle when you are normally calm and controlled.
  • Body language

In fact, think of your own relationships again. What do you or those you love do when those unspoken things get too near the surface?

If you have a scene in your manuscript that feels flat, but you know on some level it simply HAS to be there, see if you can poke around in the unspoken things that lie between the characters. There’s a good chance you’ll find a thread you can use to weave a whole additional dimension to that scene and possibly the book.

Maybe consider having one of the characters force that unspoken thing out into the open. How would that change the dynamic of their relationships? Of their emotional journey? Would this create a cascading effect? Or a brick wall of denial?

To me, this sort of layering speaks to the very heart of writing what we know. Write from the emotional landscape in which we travel and reside. Dig deep into the complexities of our own relationships—with others, ourselves, the world at large—and pull those truths and insights into our writing.





About Robin LaFevers

Robin LaFevers is the author of fourteen books for young readers, including the Theodosia and Nathaniel Fludd series. Her most recent book, GRAVE MERCY, is a young adult romance about assassin nuns in medieval France. A lifelong introvert, she currently lives on a blissfully quiet hill in Southern California.


  1. says

    Wow! What an amazing piece. My chosen genre, family sagas, is ride with such smoldering emotions. In my writing the subtext of the scene is as important as the narrative. This kind of writing is difficult to pull off and there are some highly skilled practitioners. Alice McDermott and Anne Tyler are among those writers who employ this skill effectively. I love the quote about that which is unspoken defines the relationship. Well done, Robin.

  2. Jeriann Fisher says

    I loved this piece. As a romance writer, I can see tremendous opportunities to employ these techniques to add that element of tension between characters. Thank you for the article.

  3. says

    Hi Robin: I often wonder when I write scenes or have characters’ actions like you suggest (the unspoken little drama “imbued with emotional meaning”), is it clear enough to the reader?

    In my mind, as the writer, I know what’s happening and why and the motivation of the character or actions, but I’m not sure if the reader will “get the point.” Sometimes when I’ve had beta readers give me feedback, they tell me they didn’t understand. When one beta reader doesn’t get it and another beta reader is unsure, then I think I’ve been too subtle. As a writer, how do you know these unspoken dramas are reaching the reader?

  4. says


    Hoo boy, another keeper. Emotional landscape is an important term in my vocabulary, and you’ve mapped a major highway across it.

    Subtext (the unspoken) spills over into actions (the visible) and when it does the effect is strong. That is because the reader gains an insight into what’s going on inside.

    I think this is important. We tend to forget that most of a story happens inside a reader’s imagination. We don’t leave room for that unless we leave things out. In a way what’s on the page doesn’t tell the story it only stimulates reader to experience the story for themselves.

    “We often hate most in others things that we fear in ourselves.” So true. The way I put it is, if there is something to complain about in someone else then it’s first true of me. This too matters greatly in story because what’s feared about oneself is a pointer to what must change. It’s the trail head marker at the start of an inner journey.

    I hesitate to add anything to this ore-rich post, but perhaps it’s this: What’s unspoken can grow, deepen and become a crisis. It then finally must be spoken, produce fallout…and then force a change.

    You’re good, Robin, really-really good. When “The Best of Writer Unboxed” is finally collected in a volume, you’r going to be all over that thing.

  5. says

    Robin, I wonder whether you were looking into our home this morning … the terrible tension between the children and myself with things left unsaid, hugs not given. I am not proud of these moments. But in fiction, I adore subtext and reading in between the lines. Wonderful post.

  6. says

    Thanks so much for this post, Robin. I am trying right now to imbue my novel with an undercurrent that I’m not sure I’m pulling off correctly. I am square in the forest and am not sure I can see the trees. I’m going over and over it, waiting days in between, to see whether it’s coming across correctly. I love to read books where I am not really sure what’s going on but I can feel it coming.
    Great post.

  7. Denise Willson says

    Another printer, thanks, Robin! My file of great writing advice from WU is so large I consider it a training course on the craft! Thanks, guys!

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

  8. Amy says

    This was a great read this morning. I was especially attracted to it for use in short stories because there is a limited amount of words to convey the story and action is key. I look forward to keeping this advice on the front burner while I write.

  9. says

    Fantastic post. I think it’s a normal rookie mistake to tell the reader everything. We forget that the reader wants to be engaged in the story, not lectured to. Leaving things unsaid will have our reader thinking about the story all day long, wondering what her favorite character was up to. That’s the kind of reader I want.

  10. says

    I see this as the black space around the character’s wound. Happily, because I saw this soooo frequently in medicine, I think this is one of my writing strengths–the grasping-the-principle part, anyway.

  11. says

    I admit, you had me freaked at the mention of the “A” word (algebra), but I’m so glad I held it together. So many ‘a-ha!’ moments I’m breathless. I particularly liked: “It is our own unacknowledged shadow self that has the bulk of the power in our relationship.” Chills on chills, that one. Thanks so much for this helpful post, Robin. Thanks for shining a light onto our shadow selves.

    Sophia Ryan — She Likes It Irish

  12. says

    ‘If we can give our readers the sense that what happens on the page is not about what appears to be happening on the page, they will be hooked, hungry to read on and find out what is really going on.’

    Thank you for this insightful article and the how-tos.

  13. says

    Robin, “The conversations we will never allow ourselves to have.” Ouch. You made me uncomfortable about my own ditherings, compensations and emotional tics over “untouchable” subjects. Which demonstrates the complexity of those unstirred layers.

    Fine piece on the simmerings within, and how the pot can unexpectedly boil over—and burn. Thanks for the insights.

  14. says

    ‘That which is unspoken defines the relationship’ is true especially for the generation of us brought up on ‘if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.’

    It is a huge straightjacket. Things you listed – such as finances – and I’ll add sex – are minefields where telling a truth can lead to explosions and destruction.

    It is impossible, in our limited times with each other, even in a long conversation, to exactly give our opinion on anything, with all the right nuances and weights.

    Which means, as writers, we have unlimited possibilities to tweak even a simple Good morning! into an accusation of marital infidelity. Such power.

    Add in that our bodies often tell in body language a completely different story, and you have absolute power.

    Careful – it corrupts.

  15. says

    I don’t usually comment on blogs, but this is one of the most useful things on writing I’ve read in a while (and I’ve been reading a lot on craft, lately). Thanks.

  16. says

    Nicely said, Robin. In my craft, writing for film and television, this is de rigueur, but it certainly applies to fiction as well. I love that you remind people to think outside the box for dramatic action to move the story along, instead of relying on the usual fare.

  17. says

    I loved this, Robin — it made me go back and reread my chapters today to see what’s there that I’m not seeing. Thank you.

  18. says

    Fabulous post. The heavy weight of the unspoken is almost a poem in itself (as well as a psych primer). That idea is beautiful in itself. But you go beyond and also give us ideas on how to convey the unspoken without speaking it. Thank you!