Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Writing between the lines with Elizabeth Lyon: Subtext!

HALLIE EPHRON: Today we welcome Elizabeth Lyon, one of the most thoughtful, incisive editors in the business. She's been editing since 1988, and her Editing International typically has a waiting list of authors lined up at the "door." Her book, "Manuscript Makeover," is a classic, and she's written five other books on writing.

Elizabeth's new project, "Writing Subtext," available in print and e-book. In it she shows writers how to craft subtext that develops characters, boosts suspense, and reinforces theme. This is the first of a new series of booklets that each covers a single technique in depth.

I confess, I had several novels under my belt before I heard the term subtext. It's hard to talk about because it's the thing that's NOT on the page but somehow you make it take shape in the reader's mind. For me, it's easier to see in an example of subtext than it is to define. But I'm going to ask Elizabeth to do both.

ELIZABETH LYON:  Subtext is one of the most elusive and powerful elements of craft. Literally meaning what lies beneath the text, it is an undercurrent, a hidden agenda, a vibe, a reinforcement of theme, and it exists in what is implied but not explicitly spelled out. It has impact because what you don’t say is often more powerful than what you do say.

HALLIE:
What are some of the undercurrents that you can convey with subtext?

ELIZABETH:
Sexual attraction is very common. Menace is common in mystery and suspense. Some stories include subtext generated by unaware and naïve characters, i.e., what they don't know that the reader does.

HALLIE: A master of subtext, playwright David Mamet said,

"Characters might hardly ever say what they mean, but they always say something designed to get what they want."

Do you think he's onto something?

ELIZABETH:  I wish I'd had Mamet's quote for my booklet! Hidden agendas, for good or for ill, are the stuff of subtext. Dialogue is a great place to show “double meanings.” In contrast to plays or screenplays, novels allow writers to develop subtext using other elements of craft as well.

HALLIE: In your new book you offer techniques for developing subtext using character development, nature and human settings, mood and atmosphere, plus imagery and symbolism. Can you give us an example?

ELIZABETH: Consider a literary agent, in the midst of a dozen writers. He looks for a business card in his wallet and in the process flashes a two-inch-thick wad of bills. And they aren’t ones.


Subtext: He’s rich, he’s powerful, he’s manipulative, he’s insecure—any or all of these are possible.

What’s the story about? Money can’t buy you happiness. Money can buy you power. Either one of these themes would be supported by the subtext of his actions. (By the way, I saw a male agent do this at a conference.)

Another example: Sudden gusts of winds, wind damage, or assailing winds could be subtext for volatility, an uncertain future, or inconstancy—symbolizing a character’s inner and outer challenges.

HALLIE: I've heard agents and editors critique writing samples and say "It's too on the nose." How does subtext relate to that?

ELIZABETH: Subtext raises a question that keeps a reader guessing: Is he attracted to her? Is the hardened criminal redeemable?

"On the nose" takes away all the fun by making the answer obvious, usually by telling --
For attraction: "She was the prettiest woman he’d ever seen and if he had the chance, he’d ask her out."

For the redeemable criminal: "At the Sunday service, prisoner 42506 told the priest he wanted to dedicate the rest of his life to God and upon his release, would the church consider him for the monastic life."

Because subtext is often indirect, it can take more words to fully reveal it. But here's a brief revision of the two examples that begins to develop subtext.

Is he attracted to her?

"The man notices the woman’s blue satin pumps and it reminds him of those worn by his date to the prom and how he stepped on her foot when they were dancing."
Is the hardened criminal redeemable?
"The religious service got him out of the cell for a while. He leafed through a bible on the chair while waiting for the priest. What the—'let he who is without sin cast the first stone.' What the hell did that mean? He’d bet the dude with the white collar couldn’t say."

HALLIE: Subtext seems a lot like foreshadowing. Is there a difference?

ELIZABETH: This had me stumped for a while. Foreshadowing signals that something is coming or going to happen.

For instance, a UN representative sent to oversee elections always walks around his car, checks the tires, looks under the car, and then from a distance of 15 feet clicks the automatic door unlock. Will the reader be on edge each and every time he gets into his own or another person’s car? You bet. A vehicle must blow up in this story (not necessarily a car) or the writer is pulling punches with the reader. His actions foreshadow the event.

Foreshadowing is the engine that drives subtext. On a simple level, the subtext in this example is danger. There is nothing subtle in this foreshadowing.

What if this man had a nervous breakdown ten years ago after seeing a friend blown up by an IED? Back-story now adds subtext, and intensifying the reader's expectation of danger. There may be a fragile self that is in peril as much or more so than the physical self.

Perhaps checking the vehicle for explosives occurs anywhere, even on the streets of a placid little town in Ohio. The foreshadowing action is the same but the subtext now refers directly to the character’s breakdown and subsequent coping—and there must still be a scene of something, vehicle or person, exploding or breaking down.

HALLIE: So any questions for Elizabeth? She'll be checking in today so here's your chance to learn from one of the top pros in the field.



An exclusive opportunity you get only here! Post a short (up to 25 words) excerpt from your own work that uses subtext in the Comments section of today's blog and Elizabeth will give you personal feedback. She's offered to comment on up to 20 excerpts.

DRUM ROLL! And we're
giving away a copy of "Writing Subtext" to one lucky commenter, e-book or print.

76 comments:

Jack Getze said...

Elizabeth is a dear friend. She taught me fiction as opposed to the journalism I started with. She has edited my pages, improved my stories, and even laughed at my stupid jokes. Since 1999, she and her books have guided me thru the whole fiction writing process. Her personal courage is another inspiration, as is her leftover chicken soup.

Love you, Elizabeth!

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Lucky you Jack--she's a wonderful teacher! Love MANUSCRIPT MAKEOVER--I recommend it everywhere I go.

So nice to see you here Elizabeth!

Edith Maxwell said...

The all-day workshop Elizabeth did for Sisters in Crime New England a few years ago was fabulous. Thank you! I'll give subtext from my WIP a shot (am I supposed to provide actual context for you?):

She pushed on. Tiny meringues of whitecaps pushed up from the dark sea. Boats moored at the Bluffs Yacht Club bobbed in the turbulent water.

Jeffrey Marks said...

Thank you for the concise definitions of these terms. I try to teach these in my language arts classes, but it's hard to find such a clear way to describe these. I'll be using these descriptions this year.

Hallie Ephron said...

So I'm grabbing this opportunity, Elizabeth. Though I couldn't get my excerpt down to 25 words, here's an excerpt from my work in progress. Subtext? Please, have at it...
***
He takes a final drag on his cigarette, the tip glowing in the dark, and stubs it out in one of the dirt-filled terra cotta planters where his ex once cultivated gardenias. Or was it gladiolas? Something with a g.

Jack Getze said...

Gee, Hallie, that's great. Feels like he's waiting to kill that miserable ex-wife who spent more time with her flowers than she did with him.

And Jeffrey -- That's what I have always loved about Elizabeth and her books: She puts these things in easy to understand terms, and then gives you examples that illustrate. An awesome teacher.

Hank said...

Hmmm..now you've got me thinking...more to come. Hmm. I have a writing day today, and now I know what I'll be concentrating on! Thank yo!

Terri Herman-Ponce said...

Oh man, this was a terrific post! I get it, at least on an emotional level. But getting subtext onto the page? Not always so easy. Still, this will give me something to work on as I edit!

I'd love to give this a whirl, but could only do 31 words. Yikes. Hope that's not an issue.

Her cheeks were red, her mouth was pinched, and her brown eyes blazed with hatred that said she wanted to kill Jason. But not until after she sliced off his balls.

Elizabeth Lyon said...

Good morning from the Pacific NW! Thanks for the welcome.

First Edith:
She pushed on. Tiny meringues of whitecaps pushed up from the dark sea. Boats moored at the Bluffs Yacht Club bobbed in the turbulent water.

Good example of using nature to foreshadow through subtext--the promise of unpleasantness at the least ahead. Does her struggle connect with the theme, what's going on inside her? One critique: "meringue" stopped me. Took me out of the mood.

Donnell Ann Bell said...

Excellent post, thank you, Jungle Red Writers and Ms. Lyon. Off to order your book on subtext. Wonderful example about the UN Representative always checking his car for subtext and foreshadowing.

jan godown annino said...

Thank you for this opportunity...Jan

"When we pulled into the space center parking lot Mom said, “Because we’re related to Buzz Aldrin, I’m going to ask for a discount.”

-from a mystery for middle grade age readers

Reine said...

Hey this is fun. I'll give a try at 25 words with subtext.

Marie was behind the bar getting ready for happy hour. Little Chrissy sat on the other side feeding a stale Slim Jim to naked Barbie.

jan godown annino said...

Thank you #2


Hope it’s cricket to share a recommended reference on this topic (not for the give-away but to share)

This meaty Q/A here today prompts me to think of how, in effective ghost stories, much needs to be left out, yet conveyed. A very fine piece, "High Talk in the Starlit Wood" I like on this is by Nancy Willard in her essays on writing: TELLING TIME.

Elizabeth Lyon said...

Hallie--thanks for having me. One procedure question--I have to fill out the security stuff after every comment--check in each time?

Now, your example:
He takes a final drag on his cigarette, the tip glowing in the dark, and stubs it out in one of the dirt-filled terra cotta planters where his ex once cultivated gardenias. Or was it gladiolas? Something with a g.

Subtext: At first I was going to say that the subtext is that he has simmering resentment toward the ex, but that was me bringing something to the text that isn't really there. The subtext conveyed most strongly is that he's disconnected from his ex--outside in the dark--perhaps clueless but for sure not remembering the details. She planted flowers but what did he do? Questions are raised, plot and character: what happened to the marriage? Does he feel alone? A last drag on the cigarette--what is he planning to do next? Really, in the limitations of this exercise, there is all kinds of subtext that the *reader* can read into it.

Ray said...

Perhaps the best prolonged example of using subtext is the movie CHINATOWN.

CHINATOWN is almost entirely written in subtext. Characters never answer direct questions, they never do what their told, they never say what they mean.

It's amazing.

Elizabeth Lyon said...

Jan, hello, your example:

"When we pulled into the space center parking lot Mom said, “Because we’re related to Buzz Aldrin, I’m going to ask for a discount.”

Ha! Very good subtext about this character. She's opportunistic, may see herself as more important than she really is, perhaps competitive, and manipulative--seeking a discount by a relationship that may or may not be real. Deeper: I suspect she's insecure and deeper still, I bet there is resentment--even if she is his second cousin twice removed.

Elizabeth Lyon said...

In the first 3 examples--Edith's was foreshadowing, a plot subtext where I don't know [yet] if it has character or thematic subtext potential.

Hallie's was obscure without knowing more surrounding details. There was subtext but hard to put my finger on without a bit more.

Jan's was clearest as subtext because it related to a character and it is from character that you get to theme. And I see I jumped over Terri--next up.

Elizabeth Lyon said...

Hi Terri--sorry for the skip.

Her cheeks were red, her mouth was pinched, and her brown eyes blazed with hatred that said she wanted to kill Jason. But not until after she sliced off his balls.

I'm glad you supplied this example. Because you added that "her brown eyes blazed with hatred" this isn't subtext. It's on the nose. Her murderous intent based on rage is not beneath the surface; it is the surface. Text not subtext.

Elizabeth Lyon said...

Thanks for the example, Reine:

Marie was behind the bar getting ready for happy hour. Little Chrissy sat on the other side feeding a stale Slim Jim to naked Barbie.

Whoa--parenting style, uh oh, although I'm assuming that Marie is her parent--and may just be a neighbor.

Without knowing more context, subtext potential here is that Chrissy needs more sustenance, nurturing, than she is getting, and naked Barbie raises questions that I can't answer without knowing more. Here is some more reading into the subtext: naked Barbie--is Marie in a risque lifestyle that her daughter accepts as normal?

Can't help but remember the daughter of a roommate I had at one time who liked to snap the heads off of both Ken and Barbie.

Elizabeth Lyon said...

Ray--you're right about China Town. There are some movies and books that are powerful by what they don't explicitly say.

Elizabeth Lyon said...

I can see where the limitation of 25 words makes it difficult to reveal subtext and easier to foreshadow. But raising questions about the character (and plot) alludes to subtext that either is there in your novels or can be developed.

Yoly said...

Rob half-smiled at her and seemed distracted by the fan turning slowly overhead. He played with a little tub of jelly. Fan. Jelly.

Elizabeth Lyon said...

Hi Yoly. Your example:

Rob half-smiled at her and seemed distracted by the fan turning slowly overhead. He played with a little tub of jelly. Fan. Jelly.

A half smile conveys ambivalence, and the POV character is calling it distraction. Playing with the jelly could be a delay tactic. All good subtext. When there is a one-word sentence, the author is communicating emphasis; this word is important. But I'm not getting what "fan" and "jelly" mean--as subtext and emphasis.

If Rob is a 3-year-old, then there may be almost no subtext without the POV character revealing more of his/her reactions. Action can be foreshadowing or subtext. But the reader needs to understand the POV character's motivation and psychology to get the full measure of subtext.

I know, these are 25-word or less excerpts. I'm just saying.

Elizabeth Lyon said...

Jack, Roberta--I forgot to say thank you and hi.

Yoly said...

True. Thanks Elizabeth. The reader knows who the characters are (her husband recently returned from a camp "changed" and pointedly avoiding talking about it.) The emphasis on "fan" and "jelly" is his attention shift: so important, the fan and jelly. They emphasize the pause, before he gushes into the reveal. But then, I've just blown the entire subtext by telling you. hee hee. 25 words is too few without context. So perhaps context and subtext work together?

Diana said...

Hi Elizabeth, I have my copy of "Subtext" and tried to apply your guidance here in chapter 8:

Rhonda bent at the waist to retrieve another bottle from under the counter. Her tunic rode up. So what if Kent got a peek at her ass? Elevated by the two-inch heels on her cowgirl boots, it didn’t look bad. She let a few seconds pass before she straightened and smoothed her top down.

Elizabeth Lyon said...

Hi Diana--thanks. Your example:

Rhonda bent at the waist to retrieve another bottle from under the counter. Her tunic rode up. So what if Kent got a peek at her ass? Elevated by the two-inch heels on her cowgirl boots, it didn’t look bad. She let a few seconds pass before she straightened and smoothed her top down.

I can identify the subtext of Rhonda's overt sexual come-on. That's pretty on the nose. The "so what" makes me wonder if she's angry at him and using a sexual tease to express it. From this excerpt, I don't pick up fondness. I'd also say that some subtext is insecurity by her self-assessment that "it didn't look bad." Maybe her message is "go away closer"? At the very least, you're raising questions. With more of the story, I bet Rhonda is an interesting--perhaps tragic--character?

Elizabeth Lyon said...

To everybody who has generously and courageously posted an excerpt--since I am also guessing at what your stories are about beyond the word limitation, I'd love for you to comment on my comment on your comment and add to the discussion of subtext. And what I didn't know or missed. When you do, copy the box where your excerpt and my comment are, then add to. Boy, is this a clear instruction?

Elizabeth Lyon said...

Someone brought it to my attention that she can't find the print copy of my subtext book on Amazon. They haven't yet cross-referenced the two versions, e-book and print. If you go back to the main Amazon search, and then scroll down to the second image of the book, you'll find the one in print.

Also, it's available for Nooks and Kobo. Does *anyone* use a Kobo reader?

Jungle Red Writers said...

I got Yoly's attention shift - Fan. Jelly. And I like it done so economically. Might have been clearer (my suggestion) if he actually looked at the jelly, not just fiddled with it. Then we'd have the sense of gaze shifting, avoiding "her."

Hallie Ephron said...

Oops sorry - that was me, signed in as JRW... taking Elizabeth up on her suggestion to comment. It's not as if I have any opinions...

Edith Maxwell said...

Edith: She pushed on. Tiny meringues of whitecaps pushed up from the dark sea. Boats moored at the Bluffs Yacht Club bobbed in the turbulent water.

Elizabeth: Good example of using nature to foreshadow through subtext--the promise of unpleasantness at the least ahead. Does her struggle connect with the theme, what's going on inside her? One critique: "meringue" stopped me. Took me out of the mood.

Edith: She's out running on the beach in the wind. The Bluffs and its mismanagement will play a big (turbulent!) part in the book. And she's about to find the murder victim. She's a regular runner and sometimes solves problems while she's running, and she will also face obstacles caused by one of the Trustees of the Bluffs. (The book is called Bluffing is Murder.)

Thanks for the offer to continue the discussion. And I will remove meringue!

historywriter said...

Boy, this is tricky, something I haven't thought about before. Elizabeth, you've done it again. I took one of your first writing workshops at Seattle Writers. Go to your workshops whenever I can. Hope you'll be at Surrey Writers this year.

My 25ish subtext:

A snowstorm that had threatened all day had finally come off the fjord. In record time, the snowfall had gathered strength and was hissing and whirling with a vengeance.

Elizabeth Lyon said...

To Edith's addition:
Edith: She pushed on. Tiny meringues of whitecaps pushed up from the dark sea. Boats moored at the Bluffs Yacht Club bobbed in the turbulent water.

Edith: She's out running on the beach in the wind. The Bluffs and its mismanagement will play a big (turbulent!) part in the book. And she's about to find the murder victim. She's a regular runner and sometimes solves problems while she's running, and she will also face obstacles caused by one of the Trustees of the Bluffs. (The book is called Bluffing is Murder.)

Elizabeth: Aha--good title and I'm glad to know more about the character and plot. What if, and I"m taking extra liberties: "She pushed on, thoughts as insistent as the whitecaps on the dark sea. She couldn't find her stride today, slowed down, caught her breath, watched the boats moored ahead a the Bluffs Yacht Club. A small one--it was always the small ones--was about to come unmoored by the turbulent water."

In other words, I'm aiming to work in a bit more character subtext and symbolism of your plot/theme, within the context of action.

Elizabeth Lyon said...

Hi historywriter--thanks for the compliments. Won't be at Surrey this year, will be at Write on the Sound in Edmonds, WA, early October.

Your example:
A snowstorm that had threatened all day had finally come off the fjord. In record time, the snowfall had gathered strength and was hissing and whirling with a vengeance.

You've captured the looming threat of an unleashed storm. In fact, the storm has become a character here and no human is equal to its power. I'd need to know about the main character to see if the subtext of this whopper storm supports the characterization. Certainly for plot, nature's subtext promises a Big Scene, life-and-death.

Reine said...

Thanks, Elizabeth. Here you are, brave woman with past containing scary roomie's daughter.

Reine: Marie was behind the bar getting ready for happy hour. Little Chrissy sat on the other side feeding a stale Slim Jim to naked Barbie.

Elizabeth: Marie was behind the bar getting ready for happy hour. Little Chrissy sat on the other side feeding a stale Slim Jim to naked Barbie.

Whoa--parenting style, uh oh, although I'm assuming that Marie is her parent--and may just be a neighbor.

Without knowing more context, subtext potential here is that Chrissy needs more sustenance, nurturing, than she is getting, and naked Barbie raises questions that I can't answer without knowing more. Here is some more reading into the subtext: naked Barbie--is Marie in a risque lifestyle that her daughter accepts as normal?

Can't help but remember the daughter of a roommate I had at one time who liked to snap the heads off of both Ken and Barbie.

Reine: “Marie,” said Joe. Is there someone who can keep an eye on Chrissy, while we have a talk? I have a few questions about that guy from Lowell.”

“Yeah, sure. Little Frankie will watch her.”

Frankie mumbled from the booth where he was doing his homework. “I’m not little.”

“Jesus, Marie. This is a barroom, not an afterschool program.”

“My sister had to go to the doctor. She can’t take an 8-year-old boy to the gynecologist for chrissake. What am I supposed to do?”

Joe looked at Marie for a couple of seconds. “Is there a place we can talk?”

“We can go to the dining room and sit in a booth. There’s no one in there.“

Joe nodded, and Marie led the way. He followed her through the swinging doors to the dining room overlooking the swamp.

Music played on the jukebox. Marie’s hips moved in time to the music as she sang along to Big Boned Gal. “I’m a big boned gal, dah dum de dum dum. You just can’t call me small.” She caught Joe’s eyes looking at her hips.
------
The roadside memorial by Pete’s Diner was growing. Every day more flowers and toys were added. Today there was a Barbie doll. Detective Joe Longo pulled over to the side of the road to look at the new addition.

No one missing. No one found dead. But here was another damn memorial, so he knew there would be another body. People were bringing things to add and were leaving handwritten prayers, rosary beads, and prayer cards behind. Everyone in Shawsheen was talking about it. Some people left notes. Please don’t do it, they wrote. Who are you going to kill, someone asked. When?

Joe knew it was over. Naked Barbie said it all. She was dead. Whoever she was, she was dead now. Her belongings would start to appear. Here and there. One at a time. Little pieces of her history. A ring, maybe. Torn jeans. A Shawsheen High sweatshirt would be found down river on the sand. It would go like that, something like that, he knew.

Annette Pickard said...

Elizabeth is one of the most delightfully refreshing, honest, and intelligent women I know. She is an amazing teacher, gifted author, and caring friend. Her superb editing skills are pushing me beyond my comfort zone into new heights of writing, which is exactly what I need and want. Thank you, dear Elizabeth!

Elizabeth Lyon said...

Oooh, Rein--that naked Barbie is a potent symbol. Certainly carries the subtext.

Elizabeth Lyon said...

Look forward to questions and not just excerpts, and other explanations about already submitted excerpts. I'm taking a short leave to walk dog.

Llisa Alber said...

I'm a big fan of Elizabeth Lyon's too. I love subtext -- not sure if I'm good at it, but I love it. What a great post! And I love reading all the comments.

Hope I'm not too late to play. This from a WIP, a pub owner:

Alan fingered the foreign notes that surrounded the chalkboard. Bills from all over world drooped away from tape yellowed with age. He pressed a cheery Romanian leu back into place and watched its corners curl toward the ground again.

Reine said...

Thanks, Elizabeth. Sorry I misunderstood your instructions. I have to go to bed now, but your response about naked Barbie and subtext answers my question. I hadn't been sure what subtext was precisely. I'm new to fiction and pretty ignorant about writers' terminology. Anyway thanks! It was a lot of fun!

Nancy Gardner said...

So glad to see you here, Elizabeth! Loved your book. Loved that class you taught us.
Here's my sample subtext:

He grunts and returns to his truck.
As I watch him retreat, a new sound stirs tiny hairs on the back of my neck.

Diane Hale said...

Thanks, Elizabeth, for sharing your expertise. This work sounds like a much-needed addition to my research library. Reading the posts from so many published authors is fascinating, and encouraging to unpublished storytellers honing their craft. (And yes, I resemble that last remark.)

Elizabeth Lyon said...

Hi Lisa--your example:

Alan fingered the foreign notes that surrounded the chalkboard. Bills from all over world drooped away from tape yellowed with age. He pressed a cheery Romanian leu back into place and watched its corners curl toward the ground again.

Elizabeth: What a fascinating focus within a setting. The subtext I'm reading into your except is that Alan has a relationship--fondness or nostalgia--with the countries represented by the faded notes. That he is drawn in particular to the "cheery Romanian leu" that refuses to stick and again curls downward makes me think that one can't undo what is done. That you can never go home again, not to what was once home.

Since all of the foreign notes are old, the tape yellowed, you could have some subtext about Alan facing the fact that he is beyond his glory days--perhaps of his youth? Coming to terms with his life as it is, perhaps mortality? Lots of questions raised and a solidly good example of subtext.

Elizabeth Lyon said...

Nancy--glad to see you here and your example:

He grunts and returns to his truck.
As I watch him retreat, a new sound stirs tiny hairs on the back of my neck.

Elizabeth: Whenever those "tiny hairs on the back of my neck" show up, the foreshadowing is imminent threat. This is the old brain stem screaming get ready to fight or get the hell outta here.

What you have here is foreshadowing. I think that in general craft lore, we'd say that the imminent danger is the subtext. What I want to see writers do--in revision--is take some of the foreshadowing and link it more strongly to character and theme so that a story deepens and the foreshadowing has greater impact. Of course, sometimes, many times, in suspense, you need to keep to action, foreshadow, reaction.

Elizabeth Lyon said...

Is there subtext by the fact that when I go to the comment box, it is always next to Jeffrey's South Park character? What do I make of it!?

Lisa Alber said...

LISA: Alan fingered the foreign notes that surrounded the chalkboard. Bills from all over world drooped away from tape yellowed with age. He pressed a cheery Romanian leu back into place and watched its corners curl toward the ground again.

ELIZABETH: What a fascinating focus within a setting. The subtext I'm reading into your except is that Alan has a relationship--fondness or nostalgia--with the countries represented by the faded notes. That he is drawn in particular to the "cheery Romanian leu" that refuses to stick and again curls downward makes me think that one can't undo what is done. That you can never go home again, not to what was once home.

Since all of the foreign notes are old, the tape yellowed, you could have some subtext about Alan facing the fact that he is beyond his glory days--perhaps of his youth? Coming to terms with his life as it is, perhaps mortality? Lots of questions raised and a solidly good example of subtext.

LISA: Can never go home again! Bingo! And your comment makes me realize that I should change the leu to a franc because he's French, living in Ireland. Big backstory will unfold, and, yes, he's got to face up to baggage from his youth to move forward in his life...

I love this stuff! Thanks!

Marjorie Reynolds said...

Good description of subtext, Elizabeth!

Elizabeth Lyon said...

Have I mentioned that only Mensa writers work in much subtext in their early drafts? I think it is one of the tasks for revision. Once you know your characters and your theme you can go back through and find places to beef up the undercurrents.

Deb said...

Hi Elizabeth! What a fascinating post! And love everyone's examples!

Now I'm rereading my WIP for subtext, but I think you're right about it going in at the revision stage.

All so very interesting!

Rhonda Lane said...

This is a great post about a topic that receives little attention in craft discussions. Thank you, Elizabeth. I'll be buying the book, too.

I'm another one who set this afternoon aside to write.(So, what am I doing here on JRW? ;) ). The examples and replies so far have been so instructive. ;) Thanks again.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Fascinating post, Elizabeth! And the comments and examples/explications are great!

I'll give it a try with a piece of my WIP.

"I was determined not to look up and see him tip his hat to me with a crook of his mouth the way he always did. Friends. Oh, yeah."

Thanks!

Edith Maxwell said...

Elizabeth, thank you! SO much better (of course).

Rhonda Lane said...

Found one! :) Yay! I didn't even have to hunt for it, either. It just came up while I was working.

“Oh.” Past her wire rims, her brow wrinkled. Her fingers fiddled with the hem of the lace curtains. “This will be in the paper?”

Deadly Duo, Duh Blog said...

Elizabeth is a long time friend and an early mentor of my wife Carolyn Rose and me. I can remember her encouragement in our Eugene, Oregon writer's groups where I became known as "The King of First Chapters." Seems like I had a new book underway each week. But with her positive feedback and sharing of knowledge (plus a little loving ass-kicking from my wife) I have been able to finish books. Look for my newest collection "First Chapters I Have Written" due out as a Kindle download sometime soon.

Elizabeth Lyon said...

Linda--hello. Your example:

"I was determined not to look up and see him tip his hat to me with a crook of his mouth the way he always did. Friends. Oh, yeah."

I like the punch with "Friends. Oh Yeah" but as subtext, the prior sentence stays a bit more veiled. If you followed with yet another action, or dialogue that conveyed her disappointment and disdain by what she doesn't and does say, then I think the passage would be stronger without the last two words of "telling."

On the other hand, because they convey voice and punch, they might fit better after the reader is kept guessing a little longer. There is more suspense in the first sentence alone.

And now, boy am I getting picky. Just by way of example. Good subtext, Linda.

Elizabeth Lyon said...

Rhonda--yes!

“Oh.” Past her wire rims, her brow wrinkled. Her fingers fiddled with the hem of the lace curtains. “This will be in the paper?”

Elizabeth: The "body language" conveys the subtext perfectly. She's worried, anxious. Because I'm in my picky mode--and you have the word-limit disadvantage, what I would have you do after this dialogue is "open it up."

Through your POV character here, add narration, a fat paragraph, and that will characterize her even more and him. Her behavior here might be followed by more that reveals even more upset; thus building greater suspense.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Thanks, Elizabeth.

"I was determined not to look up and see him tip his hat to me with a crook of his mouth the way he always did. Friends. Oh, yeah."

Elizabeth said: "I like the punch with "Friends. Oh Yeah" but as subtext, the prior sentence stays a bit more veiled. If you followed with yet another action, or dialogue that conveyed her disappointment and disdain by what she doesn't and does say, then I think the passage would be stronger without the last two words of "telling."

"On the other hand, because they convey voice and punch, they might fit better after the reader is kept guessing a little longer. There is more suspense in the first sentence alone.

"And now, boy am I getting picky. Just by way of example. Good subtext, Linda."

I think you're right. I want to show attraction that my main character is trying to fight and deny, even to herself, so this might be better without those last words, even though they're true to Skeet's attitude and voice. Thanks.



Elizabeth Lyon said...

Mike--thanks for the compliments. I think I learned more than you guys in the critique group. We were growing together in knowledge of craft and skill way back then. O King of First Chapters, will they come as they are or will they be doctored? I'd like as conceived.

For the record, it was Kick-ass Carolyn's brilliant idea to *make me* write this booklet on subtext. Thanks are eternal.

Nancy Gardner said...

Thanks for the clarification, Elizabeth!!!

David E Cournoyer said...

Elizabeth: Hi from a fan. My example of subtext is the first line of my novel, On the Level.

Joe Simpson’s last minutes were filled with ocean breezes, the calls of herring gulls, and the smell of newly mowed grass.

I nearly added "on earth" as the fifth and sixth words, but thought that might be too obvious.

David

Rhonda Lane said...

Thank you, Elizabeth. The sample showing the worried woman fiddling with the curtains precedes a sequence in which my reporter viewpoint character feels remorse and then shows kindness that isn't part of her job.

I love subtext because I believe it lets readers guess for a while and enhances the experience. Is it possible, though, to wear readers out with too much subtext?

Lara Sleath said...

Hi Elizabeth,
Here's my thirty words. Can't wait for your feedback. I'm also super excited about reading your book.
“Hi,” she stammered. Hi? Was that the best she could do?
He grinned. “I’ve been waiting for you to come up.”
She blushed. Her eyes were on his thumb rings.

Regards,
Lara

Elizabeth Lyon said...

David--love your novel. Your example:

Joe Simpson’s last minutes were filled with ocean breezes, the calls of herring gulls, and the smell of newly mowed grass.

Elizabeth: Yes, a great hook that doesn't make the mistake of adding "thud." Is it subtext? The reader is asked to keep up--"last minutes," oh, of life--and then the images put us right there in his body with what he feels and hears. We're there." Perhaps it is subtle subtext if the reader doesn't quite get "last minutes" and the confirmation is the shock of contact with the grass. Subtle, David!

Elizabeth Lyon said...

Rhonda's question: I love subtext because I believe it lets readers guess for a while and enhances the experience. Is it possible, though, to wear readers out with too much subtext?

Elizabeth: If too much is left out, for the reader it can be like watching micro second images blinking past too rapidly. Or leading the reader to struggle to supply subtext that proves to be wrong and they are forced to go back to Go and try again. In other words, confusion.

If done well, subtext in great quantity and infuse a story with so much emotional power that the reader remembers that story forever and it likely survives the author. For Writing Subtext, I read Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," novella length. It's a master work of subtext.

For the rest of us aspiring to just write a good story, one key in revision is not to force it, not to jam subtext in with overwrought imagery, unnatural gaps in dialogue (talking heads), slowed pace.

Elizabeth Lyon said...

Hi Lara. Your example:

“Hi,” she stammered. Hi? Was that the best she could do?
He grinned. “I’ve been waiting for you to come up.”
She blushed. Her eyes were on his thumb rings.

Elizabeth: Beginning with "stammered" the reader knows the woman is uncomfortable. The question raised is: Is she shy or embarrassed or what? When you add "Is that the best she could do," it's clear that the embarrassment's source is wanting to impress. When he grins and expresses his hope that she would come up, mutual sexual attraction is clear--I think text more than subtext.

There may be what I call "subtext lite" only in the lingering question how they'll hook up.

Marilyn Patterson said...

Thanks, Elizabeth. This has been wonderful. I'm not sure I get the difference yet between subtext and foreshadowing. But I'm learning a lot reading the excerpts and your comments.

Here is my excerpt from my WIP, said by a woman character who is perceived as submissive and overshadowed by her pompous husband.

“Smile pretty, come when they call, and you can get away with just about anything when they aren’t looking.”

Thanks.

Elizabeth Lyon said...

Hi Marilyn. Thanks for the added information that the woman character is perceived as submissive and is overshadowed by a pompous husband. Your example:

“Smile pretty, come when they call, and you can get away with just about anything when they aren’t looking.”

Love this line, so full of characterization. If you've preceded this character revelation with scenes that show her being submissive to the pompous husband, with hints that she may not entirely be a victim, then those scenes would be subtext-laden. This statement, however, is text. The reader who suspects as much will now have suspicions confirmed. She's in control and has the formula worked out to get her needs and desires met.

I'll do another post on foreshadow versus subtext.

Hallie Ephron said...

Thanks EVERYONE! Elizabeth is packing up her blue pencil and calling it a day. Tune in tomorrow to find out who wins a copy of Elizabeth Lyon's Subtext.

Elizabeth Lyon said...

Figuring out foreshadowing from subtext.

On the surface (pun intended), these two techniques appear the same. Both allude to something going on that creates tension, suspense, and puts the reader on alert. Both give the reader a specific object, mood, action, etc., to allow them to speculate. Only time will bear out if what suspicions are confirmed.

What turns foreshadowing into subtext is when, borrowing from your examples, the weather is turbulent AND the protagonist's life is and the character growth relates to dealing with that turbulence.

When body language and the personality conveyed in dialogue makes the reader think the woman is sitting pretty behind the facade of the submissive wife, it becomes subtext when he is knocked off his pompous ass by a stroke that puts her in the power position because he can't talk, can't walk, and she has to decide to be pompous, dictatorial, or change. Then the theme of the book and the subtext might shift to the struggle for revenge against the value of compassion.

Not all action and therefore by far not all foreshadowing can or should link to theme and character, and subtext related to them. But to the extent that you can find opportunities to enhance plot and the character arc with subtext here and subtext there, the unity and power of the book will be greater.

For more specific examples, well, they are in Writing Subtext. Also, read your favorite authors and identify subtext. Then you can write it more easily.

I've never been accused of being short-winded.

Elizabeth Lyon said...

THANK YOU, HALLIE, and JUNGLE RED WRITERS!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

I have been thinking about this ALL DAY!! Thank you, Elizabeth!

(And SUe Grafton is a MASTER at this..I have been trying to figure out why her books work so well..and I think that's the answer!)

PJ Nunn said...

I'll sure head out and pick this one up! Thanks Elizabeth and Hallie!

Denise Ann said...

Is this a record # of posts? So very interesting. I am sorry to be late to the party.

jan godown annino said...

So grateful -
to JRW, Elizabeth Lyon & Lucy Burdette, for the Tuesday head's up on the listserve & then this post. It was like a grad. school seminar. It has sent me into a writing frenzy that continues I want to reread the entire stream some much more.

Yes! -- my character I posted is only related to the astronaut through marriage of a niece. And the niece is by marriage, also. Elizabeth's analysis of the mother's psyche is spot-on. Elizabeth is Claire Voyant! She is also a ginormous new resource to me.
Those of you who already know her, thank you so much for sharing her with unknowing ones.

My word-o-meter & I are hugely appreciative.

I also like (this is Wed. a.m) being able to read all the subsequent examples & comments as I didn't return Tues.

I have been ashamedly like the poster who was King of First Chapters, always a new one under my belt, but with this encouragement, I think I know which middle grade mystery in the making, to stick with. If it becomes a finished manuscript, it will mainly be because of yesterday's exercise. Thanks some much more.

here was the post:

"Elizabeth Lyon said...
Jan, hello, your example:

"When we pulled into the space center parking lot Mom said, “Because we’re related to Buzz Aldrin, I’m going to ask for a discount.”

Ha! Very good subtext about this character. She's opportunistic, may see herself as more important than she really is, perhaps competitive, and manipulative--seeking a discount by a relationship that may or may not be real. Deeper: I suspect she's insecure and deeper still, I bet there is resentment--even if she is his second cousin twice removed."

best regards,
Jan

Patricia L. Morris said...

I too am an Elizabeth Lyon fan. Loved this discussion about writing between the lines. I think of subtext as what actors would hint at in their interpretation of what is happening. Suggested but not in the script.