Monday, September 21, 2009


I'd been reading some interesting things in the blogosphere lately about underwriting. I must admit, that is probably not my strong suits, or even one of my suits at all, when it comes to my writing. I tend to say what I mean to say, only occasionally letting an absence speak for itself.

However, I think the posts I'd read on the subject perked up my ears for future examples of it, because while watching The Emperor's Club this weekend, I found an example in one of my favorite scenes.

SPOILER ALERT: In the beginning of the movies, one of the characters you meet is Marty Blythe, a school legacy. You find out that his father's last words to him were the question on which his father had one the Mr. Julius Caesar contest, which is held every year. At the end of the movie, Marty's son, also named Martin, walks into the same classroom, and the teacher asks him to read a sign that is held above the door. The boy, unlike his father did when asked to do that same thing 25 years prior, reads the sign faultlessly, without tripping on any of the foreign words. What is unsaid is that Marty Sr. has obviously been telling those words to his some the way his father once told him what tribes invaded Rome.

I love that moment for many reasons, but only watching it this time around did I realize that I loved it in large part because of the underwriting. My friend, when it was over, said to me, "I was waiting for him to say, 'What were your father's last words to you?'" We had both surmised what those words were, but she had expected them to be stated.

I shook my head. "Did he really need to ask?" I replied. I think that the moment was stronger for the fact that the teacher knew and we knew but no one said anything.

Underwriting is a useful skill. Sometimes, it is the things we do not say -- especially if you are using a non-omniscient narrator -- that are the telling ones. It provides the reader with information without actually stating the information, making it more intuitive. This is certainly something that I hope to develop more in my writing.

How do you feel about underwriting? Do you use it? Are there any examples of it you particularly like?


  1. I do think this is an important skill to have. For me, it comes down to the reader. I think that underwriting is your way of telling that reader that you trust her or him to figure things out on their own. This also makes reading more interesting, because one has to work to make sure they get all of the information. Nice post!

  2. I agree with the above comment. It is a compliment to your reader. I know my skills in this area need improvement. I like to give too much information. This is a great post.

  3. Sometimes I think we underwrite a little too much! One of the big revisions in our book was to add more detail in the setting. This is definitely one of those skills that requires balance.

  4. Davin -- I agree that it is a compliment to the reader. I hadn't thought of it as requiring trust, but I think that's a good way to put it. It reminds me of a post I read on Natalie Whipple's blog.

    LW -- I tend to TMI as well, I fear.

    LnL -- I concur, this requires a balance. It seems everything it writing does. Ah, the benefits yoga could have on my writing... :D

  5. My favourite example of understatement is this Heineken advert. I love the way nobody says anything at the end.