The Apparent, the Subtle and the Unsaid

I strive for three layers in my writing: the obvious layer that everyone sees, the subtle layer that careful people see, and the unsaid layer whose shapes I hope to evoke in your mind by creating enough hints and contours.

The first layer is direct. I want it to be clear and concise and impossible to misunderstand. If my story is about two lovers searching for each other during a snowstorm in a city made of glass, I want you to know that.

The second layer is the subtle layer. These are things I include but that I don’t want to be apparent at first glance. I want them to be visible enough to be discernible, but not so visible that you don’t have to put on your glasses. I want you to be able to enjoy the story without seeing this layer, but to understand it better if you do.

Breaking Bad is masterful at this type of storytelling. It tells a complicated story clearly, with a whole bunch of stuff below the surface for those willing to stick their heads in.

The third layer is the unsaid layer. The first rule of this layer is not to talk about it. It’s imprecise but evocative. Although I don’t call it anything because I don’t talk about it, if I did talk about it I would call it the David Lynch layer. In a David Lynch movie, there comes a time when nobody knows what the hell is going on, not even David Lynch, yet whatever it is that’s happening is so mysterious and interesting that your brain, in its desire to understand everything, creates its own interpretation.

In one of their “Wordplayer” columns that every writer should read, screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot dub this the “Clone Wars” and explain it this way:

Studio executives love to cut stuff out of scripts. “Do we really need this?” is the challenge. And the answer is, well, usually, in point of fact—no.

But that’s when Ted and I invoke ‘The Clone Wars’ theory. It’s that line from STAR WARS where Obi-Wan tells Luke, “He fought with your father in the Clone Wars.” In the whole rest of the movie, there isn’t another reference to the Clone Wars. Does it really have to be there? Not really. But it’s that kind of touch that made the Star Wars universe so real, to so many people. For years afterwards, fans speculated and wrote stories on what might have gone on in the Clone Wars—all from just that one throwaway line.

Effective writing, as in the instruction manual to your coffee maker, is straightforward and efficient. No word is wasted.

Effective writing makes for a fine first layer in a story, but that’ll only take you so far. As a reader, it’ll whisk you through the motions of the story, but it won’t engage you. The second layer is the engagement layer. As a reader, once I know what’s going on, I start looking for what else is going on. (As Jerry Seinfeld said, “Men don’t want to know what’s on TV. Men want to know what else is on TV.”) If I look and don’t find anything, or I don’t feel rewarded for the effort I put into the search, I stop looking and I’m back on the first layer.

The step further, from the second to third layer, is the difference between good writing and good art. Good art, whether it’s a book, movie or music album, doesn’t just satisfy me; it makes me want to be creative. And it does this by hijacking my brain to express itself. Good art is a leech. It makes me want to argue with people on the internet about what’s in the blue box.

In other words, good art exists in you.

The first and second layers are created wholly by the author. They exist on the page. Neither text nor subtext is accidental. The third layer isn’t exactly accidental, but it can never be fully formed by the author, either. You—the reader, viewer, or listener—help create it for yourself from the materials given to you by the author. The author’s choice of materials is deliberate. What you make of them is not.

All of which brings me to a watercolour sketch by the artist E-tane. This painting satisfies all three of my layers. It is obviously a portrait of a young woman. But look closer, and you’ll notice that her eyes are different colours. Look closer still, and now tell me your mind isn’t already coming up with a reason for the expression on her face, the scarf around her neck, and the wind that’s so rudely messing up her hair…

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