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.