Thursday, January 7, 2010

Subtext and Context

Alicia posted a great article the other day on subtext. Let's take a look now at how to manipulate subtext on the page.

To begin, keep in mind the basic (and overly simplistic) definition of subtext: Subtext is anything implied by the text but not directly stated. So we're dealing with things that are suggested rather than defined. We can understand how subtext works by examining it at a micro level, specifically, with respect to character emotion. This is a very common form of subtext, and I might even go as far as saying it's necessary for good writing.

Here's how it works. You have a pov character who is interacting with another character -- we'll call him Henry. Seen through the prism of the pov character's viewpoint, Henry's actions provide clues to his internal state. The pov character can't see into his mind or heart. But she can see what his body is doing.

Let's say he does this:

Henry folded his arms across his chest and refused to meet her eyes.

There are emotions implied by these actions. Which ones? That's where context comes in. Context is the material surrounding a particular tidbit, and context controls the interpretation of that tidbit. We can assume that Henry's gestures imply an emotional state of some kind, but the context clarifies those emotions. Even small changes in the context can create a strong changes in meaning.

For example, it might be guilt:

"I saw you, Henry. You were touching her hair."
"I didn't mean it. It just happened." Henry folded his arms across his chest and refused to meet her eyes.

Or defensiveness:
"I saw you, Henry. You were touching her hair."
"You don't know what you saw." Henry folded his arms across his chest and refused to meet her eyes.

Or rebelliousness:
"I saw you, Henry. You were touching her hair."
"Did not! And she touched mine first, Mommy!" Henry folded his arms across his chest and refused to meet her eyes.


Never at any time in these examples do we name Henry's emotion in the text. We've taken two fairly generic gestures, routine bits of stage action, which are subject to interpretation. And then, in the context, we provided the reader with the tools to interpret them. Put it all together, and you have created subtext.

I've been known to say that naming an emotion on the page will dilute its impact. Look at this:

"I saw you, Henry. You were touching her hair."
"No, that was just--" Henry folded his arms across his chest and refused to meet her eyes, clearly feeling defensive.

By making the emotion textual rather than subtextual, we've stripped some of the power out of the gesture. We've diluted the reader's engagement in the moment by interpreting the text for them. It's telling when we should be showing. We even have an acronym for this, one that's been scrawled in the margins of countless manuscripts -- RUE, Resist the Urge to Explain.

Theresa

8 comments:

Jason Black said...

I'd venture a guess that anybody who has been pursuing creative writing in any serious fashion for any reasonable length of time will have come across the cardinal rule of fiction:

Show, don't tell.

What you're describing here is the related sin of "Show and tell." The gesture _shows_, very nicely, the subtext, but then the author has to go and muck it all up by _telling_ the reader what it was supposed to mean.

As if readers weren't smart enough to figure that out for themselves. Trust me, writers, they ARE smart enough. More than smart enough. You don't need to tell them what you just showed them. They tend to get irritated at you when you do.

As a freelance book doctor, I see this particular problem in my clients' writing all the time. If people understood that the rule is "show DON'T tell", not "show AND tell," my job would be a whole lot easier.

If it helps, just remember that this isn't kindergarten anymore. Leave the show and tell to the kiddies, ok?

Jami G. said...

Theresa,

I'm trying, I'm really trying to learn this line between leaving readers confused and leaving things left unsaid. It's a tricky thing.

Jami G.

Murphy said...

Thanks Theresa! I've got some questions, but they'll have to wait until later this afternoon. I can't believe I'm the only one with questions on this. Crapatola!

Murphy :D

Dave Shaw said...

Murphy,

Just means you're the only one who understood it well enough to have questions, right? ;-)

I think my problem is finding that gesture/expression/whatever that shows the emotion I want. Sigh.

Deb Salisbury said...

Dave,

For ideas on body language, have a look at:
changingminds.org/techniques/body/body_language.htm

It's sorted by emotion and by body part.

Deb

Dave Shaw said...

Deb,

Thanks! I'll take a look.

Murphy said...

Okay, Theresa, I had so many questions about this - I hope I didn't miss my chance.

The most important. One thing I like to do is have a character's movements reflect their inner state. As in: a MC sits forward in her seat - she has a tight grip on the headrest in front of her - maybe peers out a window - that kind of a thing, when another character addresses her. The MC is immediately distracted and replies to this person - at this point there hasn’t been an internal thought about how she’s feeling before or during this total exchange - and it isn't until after the dialogue is over that the MC eases her hand away from the headrest and sits back to look around. That’s when the internal thoughts present themselves - when the MC wonders if anyone else is worried about certain death on this bus trip? Do you think this a case of too much telling?

What about when the opposite character qualifies the look? Humm...example:

"Bad?" He turned to look at her. "It's not bad. There's nothing bad." She gave him a withering look and he grimaced. "Okay, some things weren't so great."

In my first paragraph - I think because there is an assumed progression it's okay? I mean it's assumed that the reader got that the character is anxious - so the fact that moments later she's wondering if anyone else is worried about dying makes sense, right?

In the second one - doesn't the last part of the dialogue bring home the point that this was an understatement - it was kind of meant to be funny because the reader knows their history at this point and they also know ALL the bad stuff.

Murphy who loves this kind of stuff and thinks that we should do an interactive post on the subject. :D

sanjeet said...

As a freelance book doctor, I see this particular problem in my clients' writing all the time. If people understood that the rule is "show DON'T tell", not "show AND tell," my job would be a whole lot easier.

Work from home India