Monday, January 4, 2010

Subtext article

Someone asked for thoughts on subtext, so let me post this article I wrote about it. (See T quote on Atonement. :) What do you all think? What is subtext? Can you consciously create it? What are some examples in film and fiction of good subtext?

Subtext: The Fourth Dimension

Subtext is more than words can say.

Reading is a complex activity, requiring much more than just a passive acceptance of information. Experienced readers aren't confined to the text- what's printed on the page- they interact with the text, fully participating with the writer in the making of meaning in the story. For example, here are some ways readers add dimension to the text the writer has written:

  • Bring their own knowledge into play ("So we're just a week or so before Waterloo, huh")
  • Juxtapose character action with their own experience ("Even when I was seventeen, I wasn't that naive!")
  • Interpret/translate dialogue ("The way she keeps saying she doesn't care, well, methinks she doth protest way too much")
  • Scout ahead ("I bet that line is going to come back to haunt him")
  • Flip back ("But I thought she said she went to Princeton... so she's lying now?").

Subtext is like a gift to the astute reader, an additional layer of meaning implied by the text but not accessible without a bit of thinking. And it gives a chance for the writer to deepen the theme and characters in a subversive way, inviting the reader to interact and thus become more involved in the story.

But... subtext is subtle. It is implication, nuance, juxtaposition, deception, suspense, symbolism. And it's not completely within the writer's control- remember when your critique group insisted that your hero's manly rugby team really had to be in love with each other? (Sexual subtexts are the hardest to control- just ask Freud.)

You can write a perfectly good book without subtext- where the storytelling is straightforward and the motivations are transparent, where the characters are upfront about what they want and why they want it. Plot-driven books are often just textual, and no one complains because the story's meaning doesn't require interpretation. (If The DaVinci Code has any subtext, for example, it escaped me entirely. But two million bookbuyers didn't mind.)

But character-driven books usually benefit from subtext- because it's more realistic. Humans are complex creatures who wrestle with inner demons, mixed motives, and clashing values. Subtext exists all the time in real life, and so to do justice to our characters, we can create the opportunity for the reader to find shadings of deeper meaning in our stories.

You're probably already doing this- I think subtext is nearly inevitable once you accept that characters have inner lives. But there are some ways you can exploit this advanced writing element to draw the reader in deeper and increase her engagement with the story.

Let's start with the big distinction. There are two different categories of subtext. One is macro, coming from the story as a whole, and the other is micro, found within scenes and passages. But they are both meanings which are implied but not spelled out in the text of the story.

Macro-subtext usually results from the interaction of the story and its culture. (This makes it harder for authors to control.) This usually relies on readers having a certain level of knowledge, and so whether you "get it" is going to depend on your background. For example, most everyone who saw the film Casablanca when it first came out understood the significance of the film's time period- the first few days of December 1941. The characters did not know it, but viewers knew that in less than a week, the neutral United States was going to join the world war. The words "Pearl Harbor" are never spoken, but that's there in the subtext. But the farther we get from 1941, the less resonance that date will have for viewers, and the more they'll see it as just a terrific love story set against a backdrop of war. They won't get that the cynical Rick is a symbol of his country, trying to stay out of the war as the world disintegrates around him.

Similarly, my father, a Korean War vet, saw the film MASH (filmed in 1970 but set during the earlier Korean War) and growled, "This isn't about Korea. It's about Vietnam." Only those acquainted with the two wars would be likely to notice the film's subtext: It was criticizing American policies in a very different war from the one it purported to describe.

Macro-subtext is not something most writers invent consciously. It relies too much on outside factors to be controlled solely by the writer. But it's important to know the audience and consider how their cultural background will lead them to interpret the story. Writers need to watch out for the subtexts they don't really want in there, such as a subtext of class resentment in a glitz novel. Critique groups are helpful in this, as they can usually see the subtext that is invisible to the author.

Micro-subtext, on the other hand, is contained within the story- in the scenes and passages. So it mostly requires not outside knowledge of culture and history, but inside knowledge of the characters and earlier plot events. The reader brings a more comprehensive perspective to reading the passage, and interprets a meaning that is more than what's contained in the text of the passage. Subtext is "a question of interaction between characters or between reader and writer... something that counters or challenges the text," as Harlequin Superromance writer Lynnette Kent observes.

MIRA author Judith Arnold adds, "Frequently the subtext enhances the text rather than contradicts it. Take, for example, the character of Jade in Barbara Samuel's The Goddesses of Kitchen Avenue. She's a smart, educated, attractive woman with a close-knit family who married a convict. Why did she marry such a loser? Her having fallen in love with him, married him and ultimately left him was the text. Throughout the book, we glimpse her subtext--bits and pieces of her past, her insecurities, her vulnerabilities--that help to explain the choices she made with her ex-husband. The subtext doesn't challenge the text. It just adds layers of meaning and understanding to who this woman is."

These are some of the purposes of this kind of subtext:

Plot purposes:

Giving a clue to some secret (say the identity of murderer)

Foreshadowing a coming event

Connecting a skein of events

Setting up a plot device ("I see dead people" in Sixth Sense)

Character purposes:

Hinting at an internal conflict

Juxtaposing perception and reality

Showing self-deception

Revealing a narrator as unreliable

Romantic Subtext

Do romances have subtext? In fact, Kensington author Nonnie St. George argues, "All good romance is subtext, especially in the conflict stage of the romance. When the hero and heroine argue about how she's impetuous and he's afraid of commitment, the argument really is about how they don't want to fall in love with someone who is going to hurt them."

The hero and the heroine start out in conflict, resistant to the idea of romance, especially with each other. Their attraction is still subliminal, too dangerous to acknowledge. So their early interactions should be fraught with subtext. This lets the reader participate in the tension, all the while knowing that (this being a romance) it will end happily.

Flirtation in and of itself isn't sufficient to create subtext in a scene. If they're standing in the produce section and he's talking about the lush firmness of the peaches and she's stroking the cucumbers and glancing at him longingly, their attraction is too obvious to be subtextual. Rather their conversations are going to be about anything else- whatever is going on in the plot, their external conflicts, their differing or similar attitudes and values. But something is going to tip off the astute reader that simmering underneath is a prospect they long for and fear- falling in love.

The subtext in romantic scenes should result from that paradox- the longing and the fear, the attraction and the conflict. If he's an undercover cop, he might find himself almost revealing himself to her, despite the risk. The usually careful heroine might behave impulsively with him, and not know why. The lover-to-be calls out the true self, the one usually kept safely barricaded. But especially early in the book, they'll still be trying to mount a defense against the danger of love. Too much self-awareness means too little subtext. The reader wants to sense their impending love before they do- through their conflict and their commonality.

Avon author Christie Ridgway observes, "Our characters usually are limited in their self-awareness, so the book's action is to lead them to do better with this and confront what's keeping them from committing to this love thing, so some subtext would be leading the reader to deduce the character's internal conflict before he does."

Creating Subtext

So how to do you do subtext? If it's subliminal and subtle and subversive and all those sub things... if it's not there in the text you type out... how do you create subtext?

1. First, you have to accept the reality of the inner life. That is, you have to create characters who, like real people, have mixed motives and internal conflicts, and who sometimes speak and act in ways contrary to their stated goals. In a romance, inner demons and inner needs might create alternating attraction-resistance, and this will manifest in the actions and dialogue of the hero and heroine.

2. Then consider that the text has to be plausible. We write popular fiction. That means it has to be accessible to casual readers too. The last thing you want is to end up with a book that requires a PhD and dictionaries in 14 languages to understand. So the scene has to make sense on the surface. If the reader can't skate over your text and understand the character motivation and action, then she'll spend all her time trying to puzzle that out, and not enough time on the subtext. Think of the film Sixth Sense, which most of us thought was an intriguing story about a psychologist helping a psychic child (the text), and only understood the subtext (the psychologist being dead) near the end. The plausible text made the discovery of the subtext even more entertaining.

3. At the same time, you will want to suggest to the astute reader that the surface isn't all there is, that is, put some clue in there to what isn't in there. On second viewing of Sixth Sense, it was suddenly blindingly obvious that only the child actually conversed with the psychologist. The early scenes were written in a way that made it seem as if he was interacting, but in fact, he talked to his wife and she, seemingly angry, didn't talk back. That he's dead is never stated out loud, but the clues are there.

4. In a romance, a clue might be in dialogue, when, say, a conversation that's supposed to be about business drifts into the personal- at which point they both back away and resume the business talk. It's the backing away as much as the drifting (resistance following attraction) that marks this conversation as worthy of further consideration. This lets the reader speculate about what the attraction is, and what the danger is, thereby becoming more invested in the romance.

Or romantic subtext can be implied by the action. Judith Arnold offers this scenario, "The hero and the heroine are colleagues at work, collaborating on a project. They talk only of the project and don't dare touch each other--they're in the office, and office romances are taboo. Yet their voices, their posture, the tilt of his head, the way she brushes her hair back from her

face--all these things convey the subtext. While working on the project, they're also engaged in a subtle mating dance." The less obviously sexual the actions, the more room there is for the reader to interpret.

5. Another technique is juxtaposition, for example, between dialogue and action. For instance, the hero is saying, "Yeah, well, everyone gets divorced. No big deal for me," while he's unconsciously twisting his wedding ring- any reader who understands body language will know that he's more ambivalent about the split than he's saying. And if, at the initial divorce court hearing, his wife is wearing the red dress that always gets him hot, the reader is going to sense she's not so certain either.

Actors learn to use the "business" of body language and action to play against the dialogue and let the audience find a deeper meaning. An actor friend remarks, "I was taught that 'subtext' is something not said directly in the lines, but a thought process or feeling that's informing the text, possibly directly contradicting it. It doesn't have to be sexual; there's more than a few plays where subtext is simply 'I'm telling a big fat lie'. The audience has to look at both the text he speaks and the way he acts to understand that the guy is a liar."

In fact, acting out a scene can provide insight into what actions convey the subtext you want. For example, if the heroine is lying when she identifies herself as Callie, what action can suggest "don't believe me?" Glancing away as she speaks? Jamming her hands into her pocket? The reader is trained to look for tiny signs that something is amiss- you just have to supply those tiny signs.

6. NAL author Lynn Kerstan suggests metaphors and images as another way to create subtext. "In my case, it's often masks (not literal masks, although those sometimes join the dance), mirrors and other means of reflection, light and dark . . . It's a matter of making subtle patterns that create an almost invisible framework of support for what is directly presented." Your heroine, for example, is unlikely to think or say that she is hiding her true self. But if she happens to see herself in the mirror and then turn away, the reader will sense some avoidance.

A metaphor- something that compares an abstraction to a tangible thing-- doesn't necessarily create subtext. It depends on how obvious the connection is meant to be. If the meaning isn't hidden, then it's textual, as when Robert Frost's New Englander uses the metaphor of a wall to describe his neighbors' tendency towards isolation:

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.

But when the meaning is hidden, when the reader has to go beneath the surface, make connections and interpretation, then it becomes subtext. So when, in another poem, Frost's speaker says,

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep.

And miles to go before I sleep.

.... many readers will just assume this is about some country doctor stopping for a moment to contemplate the beauty of the woods, then resuming his late-night rounds. But some readers, perhaps because they have experienced despair, will think that the speaker has almost given into the allure of suicide- symbolized by those lovely, dark, and deep woods.

You can use metaphors, symbols, and images to provide a glimpse into the subconscious. Just remember, if it's obvious, it's not subtext. It's best to embed these into the text. Use metaphors that the characters would use. The props of daily life (like a mirror) can serve double-duty as symbols. And use the setting to generate images that are visible to the characters, such as real not figurative storm clouds gathering. Let the characters supply the material for the reader to interpret.

7. Use unreliable narration. Scenes now are frequently narrated from "deep POV", that is, from the perspective of one character's thoughts and feelings as the action unfolds. You might think that, deep inside the character's head, there's little room for subtext- after all, aren't we getting the straight dope straight from the source? But Pocket author Jill Barnett points out, "The character never knows what her thoughts tell us." For example, a character might think, She adored her little sister, so tiny, so precious, so pretty. In fact, everyone loved Sally. She was the family's little star, and Joan was grateful just to be allowed in her orbit. This is likely to tell the reader something Joan can't let herself think- she resents that Sally gets all the attention.

An "unreliable narrator" allows the reader to participate in one perspective while maintaining some objectivity. If you show a character's thoughts repeatedly returning to one subject, the reader might take note of the change in wording, say, from I didn't do that to I couldn't ever do anything like that to I'm sure I'd never do anything like that. (Subtext = I did it.) Conversely, a character's refusal to think about a topic is a clue to its importance. He wasn't going to bother to remember that year. Big deal. Graduation. Starting college. Nothing special. Nothing at all of note happened that year.

The trick to "subtexting" deep POV is to push it one step too far, using repetition or emphasis to create the sense of protesting too much. "Nothing special. Nothing at all of note..."

Lynn Kerstan suggests that subtext can be even more important when the perspective is tight. "Especially in deep POV, we live the story through the POV characters. We see as they do and feel as they feel. We don't much want author voice or author intrusion these days, but we hunger for the story behind the characters' perception of it. Subtext is just about anything that helps us discover it."

8. To conceal is to reveal. The reader is going to take particular notice of blank spots, gaps, and hidden elements. Allude to an event without showing it, and the reader is going to speculate about its importance. A character who won't talk about a topic might as well be carrying a sign, "Ask me about this!"

9. Subtext doesn't always remain sub. What is only hinted at early might surface later as a plot point. As Redlines editing columnist Theresa Stevens puts it, "Subtext shifts the reader's attention from the surface action to the deeper meaning of the passage. This deeper meaning can serve to foreshadow." This is particularly important in setting up later action. Stevens gives as an example the young narrator in Ian McEwan's Atonement, who is constantly writing stories in her head. So when she accuses a neighbor boy of assaulting her cousin, the reader wonders if she has made this up too. In the end, it's revealed that she has "in atonement" invented the last half of the book, which gave a happy ending to the unjustly accused neighbor- it is a novel within a novel. The accuser becomes the author, and subtext has become text.

The Reader's Dimension

Never underestimate your readers. Whether they have PhDs or just high school diplomas, all those who read for pleasure these days have advanced training in interpreting dialogue, body language, prose, and viewpoint. And they're not passive. They don't want to sit back and just let you explain it all. They want to interact with the story, speculate, question, assume. They will ignore an image from one scene, but then remember it when it pops up in a second scene, and figure out its significance when it appears a third time. They will subconsciously make note of some fact early on, and consciously notice when it's contradicted later. They are constantly creating their own play-by-play narration of what they suspect is going on underneath the action, revising and expanding as events unfold.

In a way, subtext allows the reader to become an author too, participating in the making of meaning in the story. And to create this sort of interactive experience, authors have to remember what it's like to be a reader.


Livia Blackburne said...

I'm not sure if I can ever buy cucumbers again...

Leona said...

I have to get off my borrowed internet and didn't get to finish, and I already know it's a keeper!

I did get past the cucumbers though...


PS we made it back to Wa after 3 and half days and two flat tires, but we are home :)

Family's doing alright considering. thanks again for all the support earlier.

Jami Gold said...

Thanks, Alicia! This is great stuff.

Leona, I was just about to email you and check on you. I'm glad you arrived safely.

Jami G.

Riley Murphy said...

Alicia, I read this article earlier. This is great information! If I were going to choose a film riddled with examples of subtext? I’d have to say: As Good As It Gets. Lot’s to look at there and I would suspect that’s why they got those heavy weight actors. Yep, because seamlessly worked subtext make characters more interesting, thus more challenging to portray, don’t you agree? And really, a story without subtext deprives the reader/watcher of personal insight and the chance to discover for themselves thoughts or perceptions that are uniquely their own to apply to what they are experiencing.

Personally? I love using actions, expressions, or lack of them...especially lack of them, now that I think about it. Sometimes when a character is full of life, vivid, and literally leaping off the page - just giving that character an uncharacteristic moment of stillness says such much more to a reader (I think) than all the words the author could think to put down to succinctly describe her sadness with words. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE that!

Geez, this is one of my favorite topics! Thanks for getting me to think about it.

Hi Leona! Glad you got back to WA, okay (hey, w-a-okay ;) ). The best in 2010 for you and yours!


Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

Great article! Thanks!

This one is going on both my Favorites and Share This lists.

Andrew Rosenberg said...

I read an amateur writer's passage the other day where every single thought of the characters was included. There was no mystery about the characters. This is why I don't necessarily want to go full deep-POV...I like the fact that I can have a character say something but mean something else...and have the reader figure it out later. Some things are best left inferred.
For instance, in my new WIP I never specifically mention what goes on in the "Steam Palace", but I throw in enough clues so the reader can figure it out themselves.
Good post!
I do see how I need more romantic conflict in my WIP too, this post may help figure out how to do that.

Edittorrent said...

Well, remember, cucumbers really help with romantic conflict. :)

Anonymous said...

Another great educational post. Thanks! Its still not totally clear to me. I think I will have to re-read it again, but the parts relating to deep POV, and the repitition clicked into place in my mind. I'm totally down with that.

Thanks again

Dave Shaw said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eva Gale said...

In my RSS feed this post shows up and teeny lines and I thought, "Well, that's an interesting way to teach subtext."