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.