Subtext: We aren’t arguing about what we’re arguing about.

Our pre-marital counselor seemed both to be pleased we were getting married and feeling somehow we needed encouragement (being two youngish college kids?).

More than once he repeated (I think) to reassure us, “Two can live more cheaply than one.”

When he first said this I tried, tentatively, to correct him; pointing out that it might be cheaper per person, but it didn’t seem logical that two could together cost less than one.

He insisted, without explaining his reasons, sparking my resistance.

I protested then that while it may be true for some, it certainly couldn’t be true for us, as I lived (cost-free) with my parents, and Jay lived with 3 roommates who split costs of rent and utilities.

He seemed not to hear my arguments, and never changed his line.

I eventually let it go because it didn’t seem important enough to keep arguing about, but I never believed him.

Learning later about subtexts— the idea that what’s being said is not what’s really being said (*sigh*)— I recognized an entirely different argument could have been taking place: one our counselor felt strongly about and never occurred to us.

He must counsel many couples who fear the money-side of marriage; people who delay getting married until they think they can better “afford” it.

I believe now that he was trying to reassure us that we could do this marriage-thing (financially speaking), and when I suggested he was wrong, he objected strongly.

Perhaps he didn’t hear me objecting to his words, but to his message.

It’s made me re-think a number of disagreements since then.


I’ve read writing books that say the best stories are full of this stuff.  I can imagine it adds a lot for the people who are paying attention, but just now I still think it can’t be critical to the story.

I think it takes a measure of experience in the reader before subtexts are consistantly able to be decoded, so I appreciate dialogue that’s accessible the first time through.

These are the stories (that I like best) where you understand more and deeper when you read again.

This entry was posted in Words.

3 thoughts on “Subtext: We aren’t arguing about what we’re arguing about.

  1. So I just read the clip, and if you thought I wasn’t dying to read the story before, I am now. I’m going to read it again later and try to look at it more objectively.

    I wonder sometimes about subtext. I’m so not good at it, so go for it if you can, and don’t worry about it if you can’t.

  2. Perhaps he didn’t hear me objecting to his words, but to his message.

    Well said!

    But you also have to watch out for writers who fairly bludgeon you with subtext. Frank Herbert (Dune) comes to mind. It seems as though all of his protagonists understand six or seven different levels of conversation, something along the lines of “He noticed by her voice inflections and the way her hand twitched as the question was asked that she was the true intelligence of the pair, and there was likely an assassination attempt planned for the evening.”

    Stuff like that.

  3. Pingback: M-B #9: More About Cognitive Functions. « Serendipity ScrapNook

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