One of the best books I’ve read about writing (and, full disclosure, I don’t read many) is Samuel Delany’s About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters & Five Interviews (Wesleyan). When I say “best,” I don’t mean I was nodding my head the whole way through going, “Right! Exactly!” Although in many places I was. Overall, I was in constant dialogue, sometimes offering additional examples or counterexamples, sometimes arguing vociferously, sometimes muttering, “WTF are you talking about?” Almost every page was good for a long train of thought.
The subject of one chapter is illustrated by its title, “After No Time at All the String on Which He Had Been Pulling and Pulling Came Apart into Two Separate Pieces So Quickly He Hardly Realized It Had Snapped….” Writing, Delany argues, has at least two technical levels. The sentences of a story describe a progression of events and occurrences, and this is what he calls the “text.” These sentences, though, are simultaneously “gesturing, miming, and generally carrying on about a supportive countertext that gives the story we’re reading all its resonance, highlighting, and intensity.”
In good fiction, he argues,
sentences must dramatize what they are about as well as simply say it… must suggest (not tell), by pacing, word choice (diction), by its consonantal clatter and assonantial coo, what is going on with the characters’ feelings.
The invented sentence of the title is an example of text and countertext working in opposition. There’s nothing quick or sudden or snappy in that sentence.
Most of the other examples he gives are from an unpublished sf story, “The Beach Fire,” for example:
Bill woke up, snapped into consciousness by nothing of which he was immediately aware.
Delany comments on the lack of snap here as well, but there are further problems with the countertext that he could have mentioned. One is the struggle the sentence is having between “snapped into consciousness” and “was immediately aware of nothing”; for me, at least, imagining “aware of nothing” and “consciousness” are contradictory impulses. Also, “nothing” can’t do something, i.e., “snap” someone into consciousness. Overall, “nothing of which he was immediately aware” is a profoundly empty set of words. The sentence ends not with detail that denotes or connotes anxiety, or vigilant arousal, or fear, which are possibilities for Bill’s emotion, but instead declines into sensory and emotional stasis, as if we’ve been dumped into stagnant water. I feel as if I’m going to have to struggle hard to climb out into the next sentence.
My initial rewrite of the sentence would be something like, “Bill opened his eyes, not sure what had snapped him into wakefulness.” That ends with the uncertainty and edginess of wakefulness. I don’t like the rhythm and semantic weakness of “not sure what had,” though, so I’d work on improving that.
Yes, Delany writes, you could call the above example “wooden prose,” but looking at it as a problem with the countertext shows a path toward a solution. Between the first and the final draft, he says, a writer needs to ask of each sentence both, “What is it saying?” (the text) and “‘What is it doing?'” (the countertext).
This essay put into words, and supplied critical vocabulary for, an aspect of writing that I’ve tried to address in a haphazard or intuitive way for many years. Writing high or s&s fantasy, for example, I try to catch words that are based in concepts, e.g. having to do with certain kinds of technology, that couldn’t exist in that universe. Along somewhat the same track, I was thinking this morning about all the words we have in English based on animal characteristics that arguably no longer refer denotatively to animals: to outfox, to crow over, to horse around, to chicken out, dogged, cowed, ravenous, sheepish, catty, batty, cocky, little kids, to bug someone, to bull your way in. Do you see a wolf somewhere in the back of your mind when you read “wolf a meal?”
Countertext is a much broader topic than just word choice, though. Note that it isn’t the same as subtext. Countertext is a quite overt and active aspect of the prose, although it can take some practice to become critically aware of it.