At the edge of the meadow is a fence. It has been standing a long time, so long that every post leans, often at a different angle. Between the posts barbed wire stretches and in a few places sags. When you get close enough, you can see remnants: a strand of hair, frayed string, a small piece of red cloth caught in the barbs. The details of what has passed by or what the wind has blown in held in place for us to examine.
I have been thinking about the subtext of details. How the small things our characters pay attention to and point out to the reader can say more than the keenest dialogue. They happen below the text.
According to Wikipedia “Subtext is content underneath the spoken dialogue. Under dialogue, there can be conflict, anger, competition, pride, showing off, or other implicit ideas and emotions. Subtext is the unspoken thoughts and motives of characters—what they really think and believe.”
But subtext is also carefully selected details that make the particular universal. They focus as subtext because they are seen through our characters eyes and without the advantage of dialogue let us in on their thoughts.
Ralph Fletcher in What a Writer Needs offers wise advice. “Don’t write about senility or a man losing his ability to take care of himself. Write about lost belt loops.” How we can choose just the right detail to show what our character thinks and believes at that point in time without the character telling us?
In the wonderful and bleak Winter’s Bone, Ree Dolly thinks about the last time she saw her father. “Walnuts were thumping to the ground in the night like stalking footsteps of some large thing that never quite came into view…” Suppose two co- workers are arguing, a snarky "he said/ she said" kind of fight, and all the while he keeps glancing at the ticket stubs on her desk, the ones she saved from her big weekend date.
If you could imagine the details of your scene caught in those barbs, what would they be? What would the things your character notices be shouting or whispering to the reader?