Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Don't Overthink It

My general impression from the comments in the various subtext posts makes me think there's something of a general confidence crisis on this subject. This is unwarranted. Every day, you interact with people and watch their body language and demeanor for clues to their internal states. You have a lifetime of practice in interpreting subtext in day to day life. It's really not that different in fiction.

Perhaps the difference is in familiarity. Perhaps as writers we have it drummed into us that we must make everything absolutely clear to the reader. We take this to mean everything must be spelled out in precise detail, leaving nothing to the imagination. But clarity is possible even when we rely on clues rather than direct statements.

Tears streamed down Jessica's face.
or
Jessica was sad.

The first gives a visual clue to an emotional state. The second tells the emotional state. Which is more vivid and engaging? The first. No contest.

So here's what we're going to do. We're going to practice. Practicing will give you familiarity with the technique, which will increase your confidence. I'm going to give you an action by a character. In the comments, I want you to give examples of how this action could be used to demonstrate TWO different emotional states. Do this twice because it will force you to think about different ways to interpret the same action. Context, remember, is crucially important in staging subtext.

Here's your action:
Henry skittered backwards in three quick, light steps.

Now link that to an emotion without naming the emotion. You can do it. It's not as hard as you think.

Theresa

25 comments:

Katrina Stonoff said...

"Henry skittered backward in three quick steps and cowered behind a light pole."

I love "skittered!" What a great verb. But I think I would delete "in three quick steps," at least in my sentence.

Marie said...

Henry skittered backwards in three quick, light steps. "Oh! I didn't see you standing there."


Henry skittered backwards in three quick, light steps. "Look, mom! I'm Michael Jackson."

(sorry, couldn't resist) LOL

Henry skittered backwards in three quick, light steps. "How dare you, sir! I should call you out here and now."

Livia said...

The dog growled menacingly. Henry skittered ...

"Whoa, this ship sure is rocky," Henry skittered...

Fun exercise!

Stacy McKitrick said...

Henry skittered backwards in three quick, light steps. "Get that snake away from me!"

Henry skittered backwards in three quick, light steps. "She loves me, she loves me, she loves me!"

Edittorrent said...

Yes! Look at all those emotions. Joy, outrage, fear, uncertainty -- all linked to the same action. The emotion is clear from the context. See, it's not so bad, is it? :)

Theresa

sylvia said...

Henry skittered backwards in three quick, light steps. His hands rose to his eyes as if to block out the scene in front of him and then dropped back to his sides helplessly.

The "as if" is probably me insisting on "telling" again, though.

How about:
Henry skittered backwards in three quick, light steps. I put down my tools and stepped towards him. He turned and dashed towards the woods, glancing back every few steps to make sure I was still following.

Dave Shaw said...

Henry skittered backwards in three quick, light steps. The tightrope snapped just as he reached the platform. He clung to the ladder and took several deep breaths.

Henry skittered backwards in three quick, light steps. Little Jenny squealed in his arms, then laughed and shouted, "Swing me around, Daddy!"

Murphy said...

Hi Theresa:

I think it's interesting that most of these examples have dialogue tags. I've included a couple without dialogue attached.

Henry skittered backwards in three quick, light steps. His heart pounded as he peered into the darkness.

Henry skittered backwards in three quick, light steps. He ducked behind the staircase and held his breath.

Henry skittered backwards in three quick, light steps. He stopped, snapped his trench coat open with a flourish, and beamed.

Henry skittered backwards in three quick light, steps. Tonight was going to be awesome!

Murphy

Jami G. said...

Ooo, what fun. I think I'll take this one step further...

Maria met his gaze. "I'm pregnant."
Henry skittered backwards in three quick, light steps. The dresser behind him scraped his heel and cut off his escape.

Maria met his gaze. "I'm pregnant."
Henry skittered backwards in three quick, light steps. His widened eyes took in his wife's slender form. "Are you sure? I mean, you wouldn't tease with this, right?"

And now for a completely irrelevant question... Theresa, I thought American usage didn't add the "s" after "-ward" words (like backward), am I wrong? Or is that a house-style dependent thing?

Thanks!
Jami G.

John Harper said...

The apparition appeared from the doorway.
"ahh!" Henry skittered backwards in three quick, light steps.
(Supposed to be fear)

Kate leaned in, eyes closing.
Henry skittered backwards in three quick, light steps. "ah, um I have to get going."
(Supposed to be embarrassment)

Iapetus999 said...

Henry skittered backwards in three quick, light steps. "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee."

Henry skittered backwards in three quick, light steps as the bugs raced over his shoes.

Edittorrent said...

Iapetus, I might recommend reversing the parts in your second example. This would preserve the action-reaction sequence and make the emotion a bit clearer:

As the bugs raced over his shoes, Henry skittered....

Jami, the S on the end is a colloquialism which I must constantly edit out of my own writing. Missed it this time!

Theresa

Whirlochre said...

Henry skittered backwards in three quick, light steps. "To hell with your stupid dance contest, you clowns!"

Henry skittered backwards in three quick, light steps. His ex!

Tricia said...

"Hands off!"
Henry skittered backward in three quick, light steps. "I thought you wanted me."

Henry skittered backward in three quick, light steps. Where could he hide?

Jami G. said...

Theresa said: Jami, the S on the end is a colloquialism which I must constantly edit out of my own writing. Missed it this time!

Don't worry, I won't gloat. As a matter of fact, I think I'll go hide for a while as I just know Murphy's going to pop in with some "See? I warned you all that she's a perfectionist!" comment. LOL!

Jami G.

Murphy said...

Okay, I just wanted to remind everyone that today is the last day to vote on P&E Readers' Poll for Writer forums. If you missed this from the previous post about it - PLEASE vote - you can go here to do so:
http://www.critters.org/predpoll/

Edittorrent is still #One! Awesome! Let's keep keep it that way! :D

To check standings you can go here: http://www.critters.org/predpoll/tally.ht

Murphy - who loves to look at the sidebar and be dazzled by all those awards!

And, JG? About my possible comment to you - not even close. In fact, I wasn't even going to address the matter at all because I'm nice like that - and hey, you guys are nice too, as you usually second guess what I'm going to say - before I even say it! How cool is that? ;)

Babs said...

I voted, Murphy!

Henry skittered backwards in three quick, light steps. "Oh, dear! Did you see that? Was it a mouse?"

Edittorrent said...

Does anyone know if there's a way to block spammers from blogger comments? I looked but can't find what I think ought to be there.

Theresa

Holly said...

As soon as the spiders crawled out of the jar, Henry skittered backward in three quick, light steps.

Wonderful website. You offer so much here.

Hollister Ann Grant said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Edittorrent said...

Thanks, Hollister. Our spammer has two blogs with IDs, so I've arranged to moderate comments temporarily. That might slow down the conversation a bit, but we'll try it and see if we can shake that guy. We did it once before when the Asian porno people started spamming our comment thread, and that worked. I just wish there were a way to block a particular google ID.

The thing is, we like anonymous comments. We've had a few minor insults from anons over the years, but probably 90% of them have been people with wise insights and a bit of shyness. I would hate to see any legit commenter blocked just because they're shy at first and prefer to post anonymously.

Theresa

Megs - Scattered Bits said...

I'm not too shy (lurk a lot more due to time and work internet filters -- they're finicky), but I have to use the name/url option mostly because I DO have a website/blog. Somewhere else.

Don't have a blogger account though.

By the way, I love this blog. Check it daily and delight in both learning new things and putting names to things I've done for a while and wanted to make sure they were as good techniques as I thought they were.

Leona said...

Henry skittered back in three quick light steps, staying on the balls of his feet, ready to run. It was Murphy.

Henry skittered back in three quick light steps, the smile dazzling on his face. She said yes.

You always do the fun stuff when I can't sit on the internet and play ** insert pout ** LOL this was fun.

Jami, I know how it is to fear The Murphy. :D

Murphy said...

@Leona: LOL!

Murphy ;)

Katie said...

The car was speeding in his direction. Henry skittered backwards in three quick, light steps.