Tuesday, June 14

What Are You Really Saying? (The Use of Subtext)

By James R. Tuck, @JamesTuckwriter

Part of the How They Do It Series (Monthly contributor)


Ah, subtext my old friend. It's good to see you again.

As a quick catch up, subtext is the meaning that falls under the words spoken in a conversation. It is all the things inside your characters that color their word choice coming to bear weight on what they say and how they say it. It can add a lot of texture to your writing.

How do you use subtext? Here are some tips.

1. Know your characters inside and out.


Maybe your main character was raised by an alcoholic and has great issues with it. This will affect his reaction to someone having a drink in the story, but it may be a situation where he feels he cannot say directly what he thinks and so begins subtext. You convey to the reader his displeasure by the words he may or may not choose and his actions around the conversation. Show the reader his discomfort.

2. Talk about anything but what is really occurring.


Like the end of the classic OF MICE AND MEN Lennie and George are talking about a farm and rabbits but in reality they are discussing the fact that one of them has to mercy kill his friend to save him from torture and confusion and death at the hands of a lynch mob. It's powerful stuff even just on its own without the rest of the story attached. Do the same thing. Take your straightforward dialogue and toss it in favor of a symbolic one. If you have a couple who have fallen out of love, let them discuss something they own from when they loved each other, or the TV show they are watching, or their friends from down the lane.

3. Cut.


Take your dialogue and cut out an answer to a question. This will add a layer of heavy subtext.

Example 1:
“Do you think Thomas can be saved?” Mr Harvis asked.
“These things are always tricky. There's no guarantee but we will do all we can.”
“I'll get the money together.”

Eample 2:
“Do you think Thomas can be saved?” Mr. Harvis asked.
Sheriff Donovan pulled his wide-brim hat off his head. Calloused fingers brushed the crown of it scraping the felt like an errant stroke from a pool stick at Mabel's on Frat night.
Mr. Harvis dropped his chin to his chest. “I'll still get the money together.”

4. Don't explain the subtext.


Really, we sometimes suffer from not trusting our readers. We try to handhold them through every little thing we meant when we don't have to. Leave the reader alone, they like figuring things out. It makes them feel smart and they are smart for that. If you use errant dialogue or narration to go back and explain what you have done then that will ruin the effect.

Keep some of the mystery!

5. Tell us what is happening physically.


When people talk they fidget. When they talk in circles they are fidgeting. If someone is discussing the sunset but they have just learned they have an inoperable brain tumor but they cant tell the person they are with, well suddenly, that sunset becomes so much more than a sunset, it becomes a metaphor for dying. You can use their physical cues to let the reader know there is more going on.

Hopefully this is a quick overview of subtext and how to use it. I suggest you take some time to study the dialogue of great movies and TV shows. Read with an eye toward subtext and see if you can find ways you can utilize it better.

James was born and raised in Georgia and grew up drawing and reading a steady helping of Robert E. Howard stories, Golden Age comics, and books he was far too young to be reading. Combined with a very Southern involvement in church and watching horror movies, this became the bedrock of his creativity. He became a tattoo artist, and now writes dark fantasy. He's the author of the Deacon Chalk: Occult Bounty Hunter series, a variety of short stories and novellas set in the same world (and some outside of it), and the editor of the Thunder on the Battlefield anthologies. His newest series (co-written with Debbie Viguie), is Robin Hood: Demon's Bane.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound

About Robin Hood: Demon's Bane

Sherwood Forest is a place of magic, and Prince John and his allies are demons bent upon ruling Britain. The solstice draws close, and Prince John and the Sheriff hold Maid Marian, whose blood sacrifice will lock the prince’s hold on the kingdom and the crown. Unless Marian can reach Robin with a magic artifact coveted by the enemy and entrusted to her by the Cardinal, the ritual will occur. 

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


3 comments:

  1. Once again, great tips. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  2. So talking about subtext always brings up a question - I do subtext just fine in the non-pov characters, but I'm never sure how to handle it for the one whose pov I'm in. There are four main pov characters (but only one pov per scene), and usually two or more of them are interecting in each scene, with lots of secrets and conflict. I find I write the conflict and its subtext better when I'm not in the most directly connected pov-character's head, but that person usually has more at stake in the scene, so it feels kind of wrong not to show that scene scene from their pov. But how do I not share what they're thinking/feeling in a fairly tight third (thus preserving subtext) if I switch to them?

    I hope that made sense....

    ReplyDelete
  3. So talking about subtext always brings up a question - I do subtext just fine in the non-pov characters, but I'm never sure how to handle it for the one whose pov I'm in. There are four main pov characters (but only one pov per scene), and usually two or more of them are interecting in each scene, with lots of secrets and conflict. I find I write the conflict and its subtext better when I'm not in the most directly connected pov-character's head, but that person usually has more at stake in the scene, so it feels kind of wrong not to show that scene scene from their pov. But how do I not share what they're thinking/feeling in a fairly tight third (thus preserving subtext) if I switch to them?

    I hope that made sense....

    ReplyDelete