Monday, June 1

A Trick for Writing Subtext

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

While working on my current novel, I reached a pivotal scene that involved a lot of subtext (where the characters aren’t talking about they’re really talking about, or what's going on has greater meaning under the surface). Two sisters are having a conversation, and one assumes it’s about Problem A, while the other is actually referring to Problem B. It’s one of those lovely conversations where readers won’t realize the double importance of the words until later in the story when they get a missing piece of the puzzle, and suddenly, this conversation will have much greater meaning.

I’d written out my front story for Sister Two already, so I knew what she was doing in the scene and why, but the scene wasn’t clicking as well as I would have liked. I needed to know what she was thinking so I could describe her actions and tone just right—she had to give the “wrong” impression without actually misleading readers (just misleading Sister One). I wanted to show her struggle with her own problem that she wasn't ready to talk about yet, even though she was hinting about it.

(Here’s more on writing the front story of your characters)

Then it hit me.

Write her internalization as if she was the POV character.

And it worked like a charm.

To keep it separate (and make it easy to delete once I was done), I added her thoughts in brackets. I could clearly see what was going on in her head and how she felt, and that made it easier to describe the outward signs of those feelings from my POV’s perspective.

Let’s visit Bob and the zombies for an example.

Say Bob and Jane are talking, and Bob is trying to determine if she’d be willing to run off with him. But he can’t risk saying it outright in case she says no. Jane actually cares about him, but she knows if they set out on their own they’ll probably die, since Bob’s wife Sally is the survival expert. And if Bob takes that final step and admits his feelings and it’s now in the open, Sally will probably leave them both to die (or kill them herself). It’s vital that Bob not say anything to make it awkward between them and risk alerting Sally.

Since we’re in Bob’s POV, we’ll know how he feels and what he’s thinking, but we won’t know what’s going on in Jane’s head. That can make it tough to write since she needs to give subtle clues that she does care, and she’s trying to save them both. So the scene might read like…
Bob brushed the dead leaves off the hood of the rusted out car, the perfect picture—he hoped—of nonchalance. If she said yes, they could leave immediately before Sally got back. “It’s not that far to Aberdeen. Couple days walk, maybe.”

Jane shrugged. “That road is crawling with zombies.”

“Not the skybridge. We could make it.”

“Bad place to get stuck if you’re wrong.” She covered her eyes and looked off down the road. “Sally back soon? ”

He slid a little closer. He ought to just ask, no more beating around the bush. “She said not to wait up.”

Jane glanced at him, frowning, then looked away. “We should probably do a perimeter check before she gets back. Just in case. We’re not the killing machines she is, remember?”
Based on this, you’d probably think Jane has no interest at all in Bob and is, in fact, kinda creeped out by him. The trouble with this scene is that all the emotion from Jane is missing, trapped in the author’s head and not making it to the page at all.

Let’s see what’s going on in Jane’s head during this conversation and see what details come up when we look through her eyes.
Bob brushed the dead leaves off the hood of the rusted out car, the perfect picture—he hoped—of nonchalance. If she said yes, they could leave immediately before Sally got back. “It’s not that far to Aberdeen. Couple days walk, maybe.”

[That tone again—the one that said he was absolutely going to cross that line they’d been dancing around for weeks. The one she wished they’d could cross.] Jane smiled, just a little, and shrugged. “That road is crawling with zombies.”

“Not the skybridge. We could make it.”

[Just him and her, alone, together. If it wouldn’t mean certain death, she’d jump all over it. Her throat tightened and she cleared it] “Bad place to get stuck if you’re wrong,” she said softly. She turned away and looked off down the road, a hand over her eyes. “Sally back soon?”

He slid a little closer. He ought to just ask, no more beating around the bush. “She said not to wait up.”

[So clumsy, but also sweet.] Jane giggled, [foolish as it was.] She glanced at him and frowned. [They could never be together]. Then looked away. [Sally could be back any time now. If she caught them like this…She jerked away, [cheeks hot]. “We should probably do a perimeter check before she gets back. Just in case. We’re not the killing machines she is, remember?”
Now I have a better sense of what’s going on in Jane’s head. I added small physical clues that reflect her inner thoughts, and there’s more for Bob to describe, notice, and react to.

(Here’s more on developing voices for non-POV characters)

Now, let’s get rid of Jane’s thoughts and smooth out the physical details so they flow with Bob’s POV.
Bob brushed the dead leaves off the hood of the rusted out car, the perfect picture—he hoped—of nonchalance. If she said yes, they could leave immediately before Sally got back. “It’s not that far to Aberdeen. Couple days walk, maybe.”

Jane smiled, just a little, and shrugged. “That road is crawling with zombies.”

“Not the skybridge. We could make it.”

She stared wistfully down the road, and for a second he thought she might say what a great idea that was. She cleared her throat instead. “Bad place to get stuck if you’re wrong,” she said softly, then turned away, a hand over her eyes. “Sally back soon?”

He slid a little closer. He ought to just ask, no more beating around the bush. “She said not to wait up.”

Jane giggled. His heart leapt, but she glanced at him and jerked away, face flushed. “We should probably do a perimeter check before she gets back. Just in case. We’re not the killing machines she is, remember?”
Jane is giving a lot more mixed signals in this snippet, and it’s easy to see how Bob might be confused about how she feels. Is Jane avoiding him or is there more here? Hopefully readers will wonder and try to parse Jane’s actions and figure out what’s really going on.

Naturally, you don’t want to write out the internalization for every non-POV character, but if you’re stuck on a scene because you’re not sure what the other characters are thinking or feeling, this trick can be a scene-saver. It’s also a good way to fix any scenes you get back with feedback indicating the reader missed the emotional component of the scene. There's a good chance those clues just didn't make it to the page.

Do you have any scenes you might try this with? 


Looking for tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.

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19 comments:

  1. Thanks Janice, this is really helpful! My WIP opens with two characters who want very different things from each other, and the non-POV character is coming across very strangely as he switches tactics to try and persuade the POV character to give him what he wants. I'll definitely be giving this a try - hopefully once I've got his inner thoughts sorted out he'll sound much more consistent.

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    1. Most welcome, and I'm glad the timing worked out perfectly. Hope it's as effective for you as it was for me.

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  2. I have a scene that could benefit from this tip. Thanks so much for the explanation and the great example to help make sure it's easily understood what's happening and how to apply it.

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  3. I like the idea of using the brackets to set it up, then going back and smoothing it over. Thanks!

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  5. This is a great idea; adds subtlety and enhances the scene. Thank you.

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  6. What a great tip. I sometimes falter because I can't use the other's POV which has me struggling through the scene. This is something I need to remember for future scenes and when it's time to edit/revise. :)

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    1. Hope it helps! It does let you see things from different perspectives.

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  7. Oddly, this came two days after I found out that one of my non-POV characters was coming across as a trouble-making jerk to my reader instead of someone who accidentally poked the metaphorical hornet's nest. Thanks for tips on addressing the issue.

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    1. Perfect timing, hope this helps you get him coming across correctly.

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  8. I'll be getting to that kind of scene soon. Thanks for the suggestion. It'll make the scene easier to write, that's for sure.

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  9. great ideas, as well as the link to the previous post. Just what I needed!

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