On July 25th, Kasie and Rex took on the topic of subtext. Here’s literally the show notes:
Theme for the day
Subtext: Don’t say what you mean. That’s too easy.
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- What is subtext?
- Why use subtext in a story or novel?
- How is it done?
This month we launched our Author Spotlights page on the site. You can become a spotlighted author on our site by becoming a patron of the show at Patreon.com/WriteOnSC
More spotlights to come this month but we’ve added Anna Fitch Courie, who has actually been a guest on the program back when we were allowed to bring people into the studio. She’s the author of six titles including the flagship Christ Walk, a book with a spiritual and physical fitness program to it.
We also added CJ Heigelmann, whose work has been in contemporary and historical fiction. Crooked Fences is about a war veteran battling his own racism and PTSD and An Uncommon Folk Rhapsody is a sweeping, epic Civil War novel with multiple viewpoints and storylines.
Welcome to both Anna and CJ. We’re proud to have you as featured authors in our WriteOnSC community and on our website.
So last week we talked about symbolism and took a small side-avenue into subtext so we decided to dedicate this week’s show to subtext. Ready?
What is subtext?
According to LiteraryTerms.net, subtext is the unspoken or unwritten meaning in a passage. It follows the reality that people rarely say what they actually mean. The most famous of these is asking someone how she is and her responding, “Fine.” When, of course, she is anything but ‘fine.’
Subtext isn’t lying, exactly. It’s implying something through what’s being told. It’s obscuring the meaning with facade and fakery.
So many great examples:
Here’s the obscure 1970’s horror film Rex mentioned on the air. Soylent Green.
- Kate Chopin in The Awakening and The Story of an Hour where we just see these characters maintaining a facade with their emotions totally buttoned up. A lot of times we see bias and racism and sexism show up in subtext.
- Tennessee Williams, the master of subtext
- Hemingway only ever suggests Jake’s disability in The Sun Also Rises but we understand it to be impotence and it permeates every masculine interaction he has in the book.
Types of subtext:
Privilege – when the reader knows something the character does not know
- So this is easy in third-person narratives because you can have scenes that take place away from the protagonist, right? Can this be done in first person? Why or why not?
- This is kind of a trope in some genres, for example a paranormal narrator like If I Stay by Gayle Forman and In an Instant by Suzanne Redfearn or The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. Hollie and I read a kids book that was narrated by a ghost, and the thing with that is, you know she’s never going to be alive, right? So even if the main character is alive, the ghost isn’t permanent, right?
- After December is the first book and Before Pittsburgh is the follow up, but the last chapter of After December is the “Pittsburgh” in the title, so there’s some resolution the reader will already have going into this sequel.
Revelation – clues to a theme or reality that is revealed over time
- Big Little Lies did a good job with this where we saw patterns of avoidance, lying, obscuring the truth and how those patterns all culminated in a big reveal at the end. I didn’t figure it out and I don’t know many readers who did. Girl on a Train and Into the Water, both by Paula Hawkins, do a good job with this kind of subtext. It’s maybe her thing?
- This can be really effective with a particular character trait, like we see a character doing something repeatedly, maybe not the same thing, but similar-vein, and then when the character is finally forced to act, he or she reacts in the way those earlier activities would suggest.
Promise – the “deal” the author is making with the reader, the expectations you’re setting
- We believe the villain will be punished and the broken will be redeemed, right? If you’re showing us a character early on who needs forgiveness, we expect it to be given to him.
- I liked the book Wonder for setting these kinds of expectations and then meeting them. The sister and her best friend, for example, have different ways of accepting their connection to the unique little brother.
- When an author fails to fulfill the promise, even if that promise was just in the subtext, the book can feel empty or undone.
Questions – the reader or audience is wondering about things being done or said
- This can be foreshadowing (a la Chekov’s gun) or it can be subtle enough to not feel important until later. Tom Robbins in Still Life With Woodpecker gives so many bizarre details that it’s hard to figure out which ones to remember. But he doesn’t trick you, when the earlier-mentioned comes back around, it feels like a great payoff, not a trick.
- I like this in character, too. When we see someone who is aloof maybe even hostile but is revealed to be deeply committed to the cause. Or an altruistic character who’s really getting some kind of payoff for their altruism.
How much of subtext is “the underlying message”? Meaning that our storytellers are trying to gift us with some greater meaning?
The Literary Terms link above suggests such a thing is true of Toy Story as the constant threat of being replaced, the measurement of how much play time a toy gets, and the idea that Andy will grow up and leave them behind, are all metaphors for workers and employers. Grim metaphors, to be sure, but maybe metaphors nonetheless?
Can writers be too heavy handed with this? Like symbolism, an obvious allegory is going to have its fair share of subtext. Thinking in Biblical terms, the story of the Prodigal Son describes a benevolent father who welcomes a reckless and (frankly) disrespectful progeny back into his home, celebrating his return and rejoicing in being reunited. As hard as this overflowing forgiveness and love is to fathom, it’s meant to be a metaphor for God’s love. That it’s so hard to identify with is kind of the point.
Subtext in a scene is the “what really happened” and if it’s done well, the reader will understand it. I’m reading Niagara Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken, who, by the way, is one of those gifted writers that makes me want to give up the craft all together. She delivers this great scene where a brother and sister, who were very close growing up and had planned to run away to Vaudeville together, the sister is offered a chance to go to college and the scene where this truth is revealed is so packed with subtext it’s breathtaking. How people show (or don’t show) anger, fear, frustration, or disappointment — that’s the sweetest subtext.
Most powerful subtext?
I’d say dialogue. I love a parent encouraging a child to leave the nest. A lover telling his ex that they were good together once. This link talks about Gatsby and Daisy’s weeping exclamations over the beauty of Jay’s shirts — it’s not about the shirts, right? No matter how beautiful they are.
This link talks about subtext in dialogue by using Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, as an example. Rogers rarely says what he means. Almost everything out of his mouth is thick with subtext. Not sarcasm, not mocking, but implied truth. She suggests these methods for adding subtext to dialogue:
- Don’t say what you mean. — so write it “straight” first, if you need to, but then mix up the conversation to be creative while still getting the point across; a classic technique is to talk about something that’s not “the thing” while everything being said applies to “the thing.”
- Bring dialogue full circle — take some conversation from the beginning of the story in its “straight” form and use it again but with a deeper meaning
- Surprise me — one character asks the other a question with a straight and obvious answer, but the response is anything but what we were expecting
- Understatement and Irony — this kind of subtle dialogue can be really powerful (and funny) when the character doesn’t want to tell the truth
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