Wednesday, October 11, 2017
Writing Between the Lines
Subtext in fiction implies that something important is not being said. The technique can take many forms, including symbolic dialogue and a character's actions while speaking. Subtext can also work with silence or digression when a character, for one reason or another, can't say what he thinks, or sidetracks from the subject.
When ideas are only suggested instead of directly voiced, the undercurrents can often hit harder than dialogue. Make use of subtle tension with voice inflection and facial expression that give deeper meaning to dialogue.
Silence is useful in presenting pertinent subtext. What is not being said is often more powerful than words spoken out loud.
In a scene from my own work, two key characters, both teenagers, have a conversation about one character's alcoholic grandparents and the many ways in which they are dysfunctional. Ironically, the character who complains about his grandparents' constant drunkenness is drinking a beer. Lately, it's become the norm for him to have a beer in his hand. His environment is such that it's perfectly normal for him to drink. When he does acknowledge his drinking, he justifies it by telling himself that every teenage kid does a little drinking now and then.
But his friend's awkward silence is far more telling than if he had said, "Hey, by the way, lately you're drinking like a sailor on shore leave, and I think you've got a problem." Because they are best friends, the character with the beer knows exactly what his friend is thinking. He knows, because the whispers of his subconscious are growing louder every day.
In subtext digression, a character who fears he will be rude or hurtful, (or get hurt, himself) often sidesteps the obvious by changing the subject. Like when someone asks "Is this a good color for me?" and you tell them their hair looks fantastic instead of saying "You look like a pumpkin in that particular shade of orange."
Dialogue is not the only way to suggest subtext. Subtext in description is a good way to give your writing tone. It's the old "dark and stormy night" without writing "dark and stormy night." Subtext in setting or description is a little more complicated than silence or digression in dialogue, and it's difficult not to fall into cliche when using subtext in setting or mood. (Please don't ever use "dark and stormy night." Please.)
Good mystery and crime writers often use subtext to point to a key piece of information that eventually answers the what, why, how, and especially, the who, questions.
Subtext is a secondary message to the reader that reflects on both character and circumstance. Weather, color, texture, facial expression, even architecture can enhance what your character thinks of himself and of others.
While one person might see a common chicken shape in the water stain on the ceiling, another character might see an elegant swan, Not only have you shown a character's state of mind, you've identified something about why she's in that state of mind. A water stain on the ceiling could indicate a "leak" in her life, and might also say something about the circumstances in which she lives.
Or maybe that chicken/swan stain on the ceiling is just one indicator in a list of things that point to a character's emotional state or circumstances. Maybe there are overflowing ashtrays, dirty dishes, beer bottles under the couch, a screen door hanging precariously on its hinges. These things can be perfect examples of subtext.
Or maybe it's just the opposite. The house is scrupulously clean, organized, and your character, who is OCD, is about to lose her mind over that one imperfection in an otherwise perfect home.
Subtext is the colorful vehicle that drives the reader from the start of the story to its promised destination at the end of the Ah Ha rainbow.