Literary device?
May 5, 2011 11:24 AM   Subscribe

Is there a name for a literary device that states something using very sparse details, yet the observant reader knows there is a history behind it that informs the situation in a significant way? I'm not thinking of understatement (as this seems to be more about irony) or paralipsis. It would be a simple, unadorned statement of reality, almost in passing, that carries deeper implications for the narrative than may be realized by the unobservant reader. What would I call this?
posted by SpacemanStix to Media & Arts (24 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Are you thinking of subtext vs. text?
posted by Victorvacendak at 11:26 AM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

posted by JJ86 at 11:27 AM on May 5, 2011

An Allusion
posted by Ad hominem at 11:27 AM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

unfortunate implications?

I hope I'm not missing any deeper implications in your question.
posted by sninctown at 11:35 AM on May 5, 2011

Reminds me of Jo Walton's term: incluing.
posted by tchemgrrl at 11:35 AM on May 5, 2011

Code language or coded language? Often used to refer to a character who is "coded" gay.
posted by momus_window at 11:43 AM on May 5, 2011

Allusion is close, but I think that the subtle difference in my example is that the author is not intending to bring to mind something specific as a point of connection, but simply knows that a particular statement about something is more important than it looks at face value, based on background information, and it is stated in a way that seems to give it much less attention than is warranted.
posted by SpacemanStix at 11:47 AM on May 5, 2011

I don't think there is going to be a specific name for this. The commonly-understood literary devices (understatement, metonymy etc.) are discrete and have a smaller scope. You're talking about the way an entire piece is written and how its parts relate to the whole. That said, I'm sure a lot of writers will have tried to give a name to it.
posted by bagadonuts at 11:48 AM on May 5, 2011

Hemingway's "iceberg theory" may be close, but that's more about the reader filling in the gaps himself.
posted by bagadonuts at 11:50 AM on May 5, 2011

Can you quote an example? I'm not quite sure I understand what you mean.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:54 AM on May 5, 2011

Like it "connotes" something?
posted by Victorvacendak at 11:59 AM on May 5, 2011

Subtext, also known as 'good writing.'
posted by incessant at 11:59 AM on May 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

It feels what you're describing is just a shared frame of reference.
posted by Phire at 11:59 AM on May 5, 2011

Meiosis may come close to what I'm looking for: a type of understatement that implies that something, on an uninformed reading, is less significant that it really is. Although, in my example, instead of intentionally understating, it simply isn't making as big a deal as you think that the history warrants, which may be missed by the casual reader, or someone who does not share the same frame of reference as the author and ideal reader.

It feels what you're describing is just a shared frame of reference.

I'm seriously considering this.
posted by SpacemanStix at 12:06 PM on May 5, 2011

Subtext, also known as 'good writing.'

Yes, this is definitely a type of subtext. Perhaps that's all I need.

Thanks everyone for the quick feedback.
posted by SpacemanStix at 12:16 PM on May 5, 2011

I would call writing like this evocative. Adjective: Bringing strong images, memories, or feelings to mind.
posted by alms at 12:18 PM on May 5, 2011

Looks like you're good now, but I wanted to add, the first thing I thought of when I read this questions was Hemingway's "for sale: baby shoes, never worn." Are you thinking of something like this, just not as obvious?
posted by estlin at 12:20 PM on May 5, 2011

Not definitional (is that even a word), but I would describe what I think you're talking about as a form of indirect characterization, or at least a facet of it. Trusting the reader to make the connections, which is what most pop writers like Grisham DON'T do, which drives me crazy when for whatever reason I try to read something like that.

Since the other thread on watches is still on my mind, I'll contrive an example from something like that.

What you're talking about (whatever it's called):

While she was talking to me, I caught her glancing at the battered men's Rolex which engulfed her wrist - the watch her father was always wearing when I dropped her off from school every afternoon.

The way John Grisham would write it:

She pointedly looked at the Rolex swallowing her wrist as a not-so-subtle way to tell Bill she was due back in court. He'd seen that watch many times before - 15 years ago when it was on her father's wrist. He'd be getting out of the Mercedes every afternoon just about the time Bill would get her home from school. Her mother gave it to her when her father died, but didn't figure she'd wear it. But Susan wasn't one to be bound by conventions.
posted by randomkeystrike at 12:31 PM on May 5, 2011

In marketing [shudder], this is called "implied backstory."
posted by Jon_Evil at 12:32 PM on May 5, 2011

It's not literary terminology, but "freighted" works.
posted by thinkpiece at 12:38 PM on May 5, 2011

I think it was Edward T. Hall who introduced the idea of "high context" vs "low context" cultures. In a high context culture, so much is understood that a single word can carry all kinds of meanings and implications. It makes for very powerful associations and gives language and other cultural artifacts a ton of meaning. Low context cultures by contrast need to have meaning explained in order for a word or an object to make sense.

Allusions in high context cultures are pretty much the way things work. For example in Ojibway, the word for a leader is "ogimaa" which is often used for "chief" or "boss." But traditionally, the word translates as "one who influences others with kindness" because of its association with the poplar tree which is a tree associated with kindness and flexibility. It's really the opposite of "boss." To use the word "ogimaa" implies all of that.

In a low context culture I'd have to explain all that. Like I just did.
posted by salishsea at 12:44 PM on May 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

Would an example of this device be the MeFiMeme: "You know who else [insert characterization]?"
posted by Obscure Reference at 12:58 PM on May 5, 2011

Restricted Code

The idea of elaborated vs. restricted code is not so much literary as "sociolingual." Elaborated code is what we use in a formal setting and when we know are company might share assumed knowledge. If you came into my group of friends, we would avoid using inside jokes that explain our observations around you, and instead use elaborated code.

The opposite of that is restricted code where the language assumes a shared knowledge. That means more pronouns, more inside jokes, and more phrases like, "Well, you know how Harry can be, so I won't say anymore."

Other examples of restricted language might be industry jargon, little-known idioms, or colloquial expressions.

I'm gonna go ahead and give myself two MeFi points for that SLAM DUNK!
posted by jander03 at 2:38 PM on May 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

You might check out the opposite, which is "on the nose" writing or dialogue.
posted by Victorvacendak at 11:02 PM on May 5, 2011

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