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Subtext: There’s Something Else in There Under the Words

By on Friday, Feb 28, 2014 in Subtext, Writing Craft | 4 comments

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After you’ve got your fast draft down, it’s time to start thinking of adding subtext to your story.

So what exactly is it?

Subtext is craft under-the-craft. It’s what you, the author, consciously does to manipulate your story to keep your reader excited about your story. It’s tension above and beyond what you are creating with your plot.

Subtext is a little complicated, but also a lot of fun. It’s the little things we do with our words to keep our reader in a constant state of questioning, of wanting more of our story and our characters.

It’s kind of what keeps our reader in suspense, a little off kilter…

(freefoto.com, image #14-19-53,)

Here goes…

I’m not really sure when I learned what subtext is. Like most things, you might read about something but not really “get” it until much later.

I’m still not sure I’ve “got it,” but I think I’m starting to understand it better.

It takes a lot of experience to master subtext, because it requires a lot of conscious manipulating of the text to keep the reader asking questions, wondering what’s going to happen next, etc.

Elizabeth Lyon, in her book Writing Subtext, says “Teachers, agents, and editors often tell writers that every story should be about ‘the thing and the other thing.’ Two sources of tension and suspense:  from plot and from subtext. What is overt and what is covert. If there are multiple things happening between the lines, then you have that many more sources of tension, subterranean focus, thematic possibilities, and character motivations.”

So subtext is another level of meaning the operates under the plot. It’s multiple layers of meaning under the words. According to Wikipedia, it’s (and this is paraphrased) “content that’s not announced explicitly.”

Subtext takes thought, planning, and revision on the part of the author to consciously place it there, under the events that are going on in the story. Lyon likens it to being an illusionist, who does things with one hand while surprising you with something happening in the other.

Subtext plays a big part in foreshadowing what might happen next in the story. It takes the form of  subtle hints keep your readers on their toes and keep them turning pages.

Here are some examples:

–Using subtext to develop character by creating hidden agendas and motives. A man may bring coffee every morning to his grandmother. Neighbors think he’s the best grandson ever. But maybe he’s not. Maybe what he’s really doing is trying to catch the attention of Gran’s hot next door neighbor. Or casing out her house so he can rob it when she’s on vacation. The subtle clues you drop through this character’s point of view that hint to one reason or the other–that’s subtext.

–Nature–e.g., a downpour erupts at the black moment. Okay, that is pretty cliche. Let’s try another:  hero is driving through the hot, dry, dead-looking desert, desert reflects the barrenness in his life. You’ve used nature to reflect a feeling going on inside the character.

–Discordant details. When a detail is introduced that is discordant to all the others, it can signal something. One tiny green sprout in the middle of that cracked dry landscape might signal hope.

–Sexual attraction:  Two characters may “hate” each other but they may do subtle things that give away their attraction for one another. For example, one makes an embarrassing Freudian slip. Blurts out something unexpected. Your heroine may get caught checking out the hero’s backside. These things create an undercurrent of sexual tension beneath their protests that they hate one another. Your reader knows they don’t really hate one another–and bigger things are coming.

–Subtext foreshadowing danger. Creepy things a villain might say can foreshadow menace to your character. An unease your character might feel might lead you to believe something bad is going to happen to him/her. A change in the weather for the worse can reflect the dangerous story mood.

–When the reader knows something the character doesn’t. This leads us to keep reading to find out  when the character is going to find out, will he or she be okay, etc.

–Symbols can be used in all kinds of ways to reinforce theme. I’ve mentioned weather above. Cutting a rope can symbolize freedom. An old Victorian house that my heroine loves and is associated with strong memories of her youth can symbolize her dreams and wishes for happiness and a real home. An old necklace a heroine wears intentionally to remind herself of an awful past can remind her she is never, ever going back there. (There are many ways to use symbols throughout your story to support theme, this is just a tiny taste.)

 –Subtext in dialogue. Two characters are talking about one thing, when they are really talking about something else. In a romance novel, this undercurrent can be sexual.

This dialogue example is from my current manuscript. Hero and heroine were hight school sweethearts. It’s now ten years later and they have lots of reasons not to get along. The hero has come to the heroine’s place to make amends and has just run into her father leaving. This is dialogue between the hero and heroine right after her dad leaves:

Brad threw his hands up in surrender. “Hey, I come bearing coffee. And I came to apologize for being so…”
He exhaled. “Yes. Judgmental. I’m sorry.”
His quirked-up smile looked sexy, not sorry. “Then what’s so funny?”

“I just find it hard to believe your father still wants to kill me after all these years.”
“He senses what you did to me way back then.” 
“Take you to prom?” Brad asked innocently.
Olivia’s cheeks flushed. “As I recall, we did a little more than just go to prom together.” They stood in the doorway. She was blocking Brad’s way into the house,  and she wasn’t sure if she should move. The conversation seemed headed into dangerous territory.
He stepped closer. She could smell his soap and the lingering scent of menthol shaving cream. 
“Let’s see, I believe you’re right,” he said, pretending to scratch his chin thoughtfully. “We also attended senior picnic and the canoe trip. The canoe trip was especially fun.”
“We got lost and ended up alone in the rapids.”
“See what I mean? Once we navigated the rapids, it was just me, you, and that canoe. Especiallyfun.” Brad waggled his eyebrows.
“As I recall, riding the rapids wasn’t the biggest thrill that day.”  

“No, Sweetness, they weren’t.” His gaze traveled slowly up and down her body, sending prickles of awareness pinging at the back of her neck.

In this example, I imply but never explicitly state what happened on that long-ago field trip, but you get a good idea from what is not said.

–The most important use of subtext is to reinforce the theme of your story. The objects, colors, weather and seasons, repeated words or phrases, many of these special details you specifically choose, should all contribute to the underlying meaning you wish to convey. If your theme is about forgiveness, the hero jumping into a clear, cold stream and feeling revived and alive can support this theme. Or in reverse, the heroine’s hair getting caught on an unforgiving branch can be a subtle hint about theme in reverse.

Told you that was a little complex, but worth it trying to understand that there is so much more to writing a story than what’s going on in the plot.

Off the top of your head, can you think of any examples of subtext from something you’ve just read?

(If you know of any books that address subtext, please feel free to suggest! The one below is a booklet.)

Source:  Writing Subtext:  How to craft subtext that develops characters, boosts suspense, and reinforces theme, by Elizabeth Lyon, 2013.