The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot by Charles Baxter

The Art of Subtext is a marvelous book on writing. It is so focused, so perfectly presented, and it also is an enduring argument for the idea of fiction being about the human condition–and, perhaps more importantly, for any beginning fiction writer, it contains a veritable cornucopia of ideas on approaches to presenting details about people and their interactions. I’ve always thought that a good writer must not just be a good observer of people but have a keen eye for the subtext of life and human relationships–and then be able to convey this in subtle and complex ways through the fiction.

To review this book is in a sense to rewrite it, so I’d just urge any writer, at any level of development, to seek it out. The sections on dialogue alone are worth it. (If you do order it, please do so through the link above. I’ve joined Amazon’s associates program. However, I’ll only be using that program for books I like.)


Fiction, a dramatic medium, asks writers to unlearn the habits of conflict-avoidance for the sake of revelation. People who have practiced good manners and conflict-avoidance all their lives have to remember to leave those habits of mind at the door when they enter the theater of fiction. Stories thrive on bad behavior, bad manners, confrontations, and unpalatable characters who by wish or compulsion make their desires visible by creating scenes. Imagine Dostoyevsky’s contempt at the idea that his characters ought to be more pleasant, more presentable. The perennial Dostoyevsky question is, “Do you want the truth or agree-able seeming falsehoods?” Fiction is that place where human beings do not have to be better than they really are, where characters can and should confront each other, where they must create scenes, where desire will have its day, where all truth is beautiful. Fiction is the antidote to the conduct manual.


  1. says

    Thanks for the recommendation, Jeff. I just purchased it on Amazon, and look forward to delving into its pages!