Discovering subtext and subtlety

It’s uncomfortable for me to admit, but there was a time when my writing lacked any trace of subtext or nuance. My work, at that point, placed a high premium on output that was totally literal and precise. I became so engrossed in that style that for a while I failed to write in any other way. But, once the work constraints were relaxed, I became like anyone who is converted from one way of life to another: a zealot for the new way. I started to explore different writing styles and voices. It was a real treat. For a while, I even studied scriptwriting. There didn’t seem to be anything more different from what I was used to and yet I learned so much that has informed my non-fiction writing.

Making subtext work for you

It is, of course, perfectly possible to write non-fiction without resorting to subtext or other literary devices. But there are times when a writer wants to influence their reader to think a particular thought without having to write it out explicitly. One can also add elegance to one’s writing, make it more memorable and inject emotion that might not be present from a more direct style of writing.   

If you want to sell an idea to someone who might be resistant to it, one of the most effective ways is to get them to think it, without actually saying it yourself. One delightful example that really hit home was crafted by David Cameron for his first confrontation with the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, immediately following Cameron’s election as leader of the Conservative Party. Cameron said to Blair:

You were the future, once 1You can see the remark at approx 1 minute 30 seconds into this video () of their exchanges on that day. To be strictly accurate, Cameron’s words were “He was the future once”. He had to use that formulation because of the parliamentary convention that MPs shouldn’t address each other directly in the House of Commons.

Taken literally, and directed at the then-current Prime Minister not long after his third election victory, that sentence simply said that Blair is “the present”. But no one hearing Cameron say it could have failed to spot a second meaning: Cameron was suggesting: “I’m the future now.”

And, indeed he was (as it turned out). But there was almost five years to go before his ascent to government at the next general election. That’s an awfully long time during which to allow his opponents to taunt him with the claim and make it sound ridiculous. By using words that his opponents would never repeat – that Blair no longer represented the future – but which the media never tired of repeating, Cameron took advantage of subtext to place the idea firmly in the public mind.  

Interestingly, the first Labour leader to be elected after Cameron became Prime Minister tried something similar back at Cameron, but it failed hopelessly because the context was all wrong. The double meaning simply wasn’t there (you can read more about that botched attempt here).

Advertisers are some of the most frequent users of subtext to help make a sale or overcome an obstacle to a sale:

  • The breakfast porridge, Ready Brek, played on the desire of parents to send their children to school feeling warm on a cold day. They employed the slogan “Central heating for kids” ()
  • Stella Artois, ran a campaign based on the idea that its lager was “Reassuringly expensive”, suggesting that the high price signalled quality
  • Male aftershave brands have, at times, needed to tread a careful line between the supposed manliness of shaving one’s face and the effeminacy of perfume. Denim adopted the mantra, “For men who don’t have to try too hard” ()
  • An insurance company, Commercial Union, used the catchphrase “We won’t make a drama out of a crisis” to convey the idea that they could handle anything with great ease (see below for my own attempt to give insurance a more human face).

Subtext is a powerful tool, but it has to be handled carefully. You may plant an idea that doesn’t have the meaning that you intend. What, for example, do businesses think they are conveying when they boast that they have been around for 100 years or more? That they have an enduring product? Possibly. Or maybe just an old-fashioned one? The well-established high street chemist, Boots, tends to have a modern décor in its shops and a range of services that seem to keep pace with modern pharmacy trends and yet it uses a very old-fashioned style for its logo and boasts “since 1849” at the entrance to its shops. I’m confused!  

And what about the breakfast cereal, Bran Flakes, which adopted the catchphrase ():

They’re tasty, tasty, very, very tasty – they’re very tasty

On the face of it, there’s no subtext there at all. It’s completely literal (“they’re very tasty”!). I presume Kellogg’s were trying to convey that very simple message. But, if you’ve ever actually eaten a Bran Flake, the catchphrase only serves to bring to mind that, in truth, they’re tasteless, tasteless, absolutely tasteless.2They’re not a complete disaster, however. I find that, if you mix Bran Flakes with Crunchy Nut Corn Flakes, you can have a bowlful of cereal flakes which is neither sickly sweet (Crunchy Nut) nor tasteless (Bran Flakes). #JustSaying

When properly deployed, nuance can achieve wonders with the merest flick of the pen. The following example is my recollection of something I read more than 25 years ago.3I have tried very hard to find the original source, both for accuracy and to credit the author, but I have failed. I do hope that I am re-telling it correctly. A story was told by a young cartoonist who had drawn a teddy bear, sitting on a shelf in the toy cupboard next to a doll. The cartoon’s caption has the teddy bear asking the doll: “Do you find me attractive?” The creator showed a draft of her work to the more-experienced, Mel Calman. He advised changing the wording to “Don’t you find me attractive”. It would be funnier, he said. Calman was right. The subtle switch from “do” to “don’t” has two effects. First, it imparts some backstory: the doll must already have done something to convey a lack of desire for the bear. Second, it contains an assumption: that the answer will be “No”. As a result of these two factors, it builds in a little tension, which is always a helpful ingredient in storytelling, comic or otherwise.  

Literary and rhetorical devices are usually intended to introduce an element of elegance to written and spoken material. When coupled with subtext, they can make a statement powerful and memorable and well as stylish. Consider, for example, this famous sentence from a speech of Winston Churchill’s:

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few

In the context of Churchill’s speech (following the Battle of Britain), the words “so much”, “so many” and “so few” each had a readily-understood meaning: “so much” referred to freedom and democracy; “so many” referred to the people of Britain (and, with hindsight, a substantial proportion of the world population); and “so few” referred to the (nearly) 3,000 fighter pilots of the RAF.  

The use of “so much … so many … so few” gave the words a resonance which has enabled this one sentence to endure for the ensuing 80 years – and no doubt for many, many years to come. (For more on this, you can see, here (), a former journalist – and perhaps a journalist again, one day – waxing lyrical about it.)

Making subtext work for me

It is only right that I offer up examples of subtext in pieces that I have written:

  • This first example arose when I found myself faced with the challenge of giving a talk about a government inquiry that took place after an insurance company collapsed. I knew in advance that not everyone in the audience was likely to have an interest in the subject and so I decided to impart an extra sense of importance to the topic. I chose to do that by opening with a (true) story that involved two leading insurers held incommunicado by the Government while one of its ministers finishes making an announcement in parliament that a million people will be denied compensation for their losses.
  • Around 25 years ago, I wrote this article about a dispute with my mortgage lender. At the heart of the piece was simply a succession of incompetent mistakes made by my lender. When I approached the Financial Times to submit the article, they said they don’t publish “complaint” stories. But I had woven the piece into an allegory of marriage and divorce. The idea was not only to make the piece more enjoyable to read but also to add a sense of emotion (frustration, mainly) to the tale. When the FT saw it, they published it and commissioned me, over the next two years, to write a series of articles on altogether more substantial topics.
  • More recently, I wrote this piece in 2016 about newspapers trying to crush attempts to introduce a regulatory regime recommended by a public inquiry into their culture and practices. Around two-thirds of the way through, I introduced a wordplay based on the fact that the word “press” doesn’t only refer to journalists, but is also a verb meaning to squash or crush. Ultimately, the press (in both senses of the word) succeeded, so my metaphor wasn’t at all overstated.
  • Finally, there was the occasion when I was asked to write a piece about volunteers at a non-profit organisation. Amongst those I chose to write about was the CEO of an insurance company. In order to create an impression more in tune with the volunteer body than the image of an insurer, I made enquiries at his workplace which led me to write this (truthful) comment:

When one of his company’s policyholders reports a break-in, staff are told to ask, first of all, “Are you OK? Is your house secure?” After that, they set about reimbursing the policyholders.

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