In my writing class, we have finished studying Wired for Story. We have gone on to Catherine Brady’s Story Logic and the Craft of Fiction. Revision is always a topic in class and as I read Brady’s Chapter 4, p.68, I appreciated her statement:
“Revision is not engine repair; it’s not possible to lift out the carburetor, repair it, and simply return it in order to make the whole engine run properly. A work of fiction functions more like an ecosystem, in which the interaction between living organisms means that the effects of a small specific change might be amplified throughout the whole network.”
She ends that chapter on p. 69 with: “in the kinesthetic play of ordering and reordering events and scenes and sentences, the trick lies in keeping a loose hold on intention while staying alert for any opportunities that arise. By lucky accident and persistence, playfulness can arrive at the right arrangement to make silence speak.”
Brady’s reference to making silence speak is about several points one of which is subtext, a topic I’ve used in my handouts for the class these last couple months. Subtext has been called the underlying story or the untold story or knowledge gaps. A story with subtext has two stories, the literal and the figurative. It’s the figurative story the reader senses from the gaps, the silence. Brady says on p. 23, that “The real story…has never happened on the page, and yet the structure of the story enables the writer to articulate what is never directly stated.”
Brady quotes Hemingway on p. 52: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”
Story Logic and the Craft of Fiction by Catherine Brady has important information for writers on every page, in every sentence.
Subtext in dialogue give readers a glimpse into the characters’ underlying feelings. The words they say may mean the opposite of how they feel or how they act. Subtext is the truth which sometimes the characters don’t realize and sometimes they do but they keep it hidden. Readers need to sense the truth from the subtext. If writers tell all in dialogue, with one character complaining enough to reveal everything she or he fears or plans, there’s no secret for the reader to discover later. Real life people hide their flaws and fears and so do characters.
Through subtext writers give hints to the reader that adds to the enjoyment of the story. We want the reader to wonder what is going on underneath the characters’ words and actions, to sense something isn’t right, to suspect he or she means the opposite. However, the readers need to trust that whatever it is will be revealed later while they have fun guessing along the way. It’s the writer’s job to use subtext without frustrating the reader and to follow through with the thread of the underlying meaning. Subtext can be shown with body language, gestures, tone of voice, facial expressions, actions and reactions. Metaphors can contribute to subtext. Readers often understand the subtext unfolding since they can relate to the character’s feelings. Real life experiences broaden the ability to read between the lines.
Have you used subtext in your work in progress? Or, have you recognized it in the story you’re reading or the movie you watched?
Jordan E. Rosenfeld’s book, MAKE A SCENE, offers many writing tips. I particularly liked her paragraphs about Foreground and Background. She says that like paintings, scenes can have backgrounds, but she meant more than setting. Plant “subtle messages and emotional layers in the background through actions” while the reader’s attention is on what’s happening in the foreground.
Rosenfeld gives the example of a couple making love in the foreground scene while in a room down the hall or upstairs, another couple has a loud argument. That background can foreshadow the loving couple’s future, or the fight downstairs could add humor to the love scene, or the fight could escalate into a gun shot, involving the couple in a mystery.
Caution: the background must have a purpose to push the plot forward or to show character reaction to the subtext action.
“Each scene is a multidimensional creation.” Enrich subtext to deepen and add complications to the story.