Monday, 19 December 2011

No Subtext Without Context

In order to create a story that resonates and affects people on more than a superficial level, you need more going on than appears to be going on.

For subtext to work you need two things:
1. There must be a clear and plausible reason for why a character does something.
2. That reason is not the true reason they’re doing it.

The character may or may not be aware of the real reasons for their behaviour, but the writer needs to know exactly what is behind a character's actions. It may seem an attractive proposition to just write the story and hope the deeper meaning inserts itself, but that is not going to produce a satisfying story.


It’s quite possible if you write a story and hint at a deeper meaning without knowing what it is, that the reader will fill in that space with their own reasons. But the problem here is twofold. First, the reader will tend to jump to the most predictable, clichéd explanations (and blame you for it). And secondly, the subtext they come up with, while making sense for each particular scene, won’t compliment and reinforce across the length of a book.

In order to create a story where the sum of the parts build into something meaningful and satisfying to read you need to be in control of each separate element, and you can’t rely on chance, or your muse, to do that for you.

If a man does something, and it’s clear and obvious why he’s doing it, there’s no subtext there. It is what it is. That kind of writing can read as juvenile (as in written by a child, not for a child).

If a man is doing something, and it’s completely unclear why he’s doing it, there’s no subtext there either. Subtext needs something to hide behind. It will be too vague (or even confusing) on the surface to worry about what’s going on underneath. Even in a mystery, where you withhold information, it’s done for a specific reason, and not across the board.

If a man is doing something and his reasons are clear, he knows what he’s doing, he knows why he’s doing it, but you don’t believe him, then you have something to work with.

You need to establish the action is a scene in a very definite manner. The reader has to be able to see who is doing what—a scene can’t be all subtext. And then you need to make sure things aren’t as they appear. This can be a big or small thing. You can hint at it or make it obvious. It can relate to events in the story, or universal ironies.

Subtext isn’t necessarily about huge revelations and secrets, it’s about seeing life as a complex, multi-faceted experience, and story is a reflection of that.

This is true of all genres, even children’s stories (you don’t get much more subtext than in fairytales). 

The temptation is to simplify story in an attempt to make things easy to understand, or to make everything mysterious in attempt to make them seem more meaningful than they are. Both of these approaches are signs of insecurity, and usually accompanied by claims that things will get better if you keep reading. But every part of the story should be interesting, and the only way to do that is to make sure every part of the text has something to offer the reader.

Let’s say Jane has a best friend Mary. And Mary has a husband Derek. Derek seduces Jane, who tries to resist, but then succumbs and feels terribly guilty. If you write this scene as a drunken fling followed by recriminations, what you end up with is melodrama, and the characters will be very two-dimensional. Random or accidental behaviour carries little weight in fiction, because nothing is random or accidental in a world where every single element is controlled by one person (you). Why does Derek want Jane? Why does Jane want Derek? How well does Mary know either of them? None of that will necessarily end up in the text, but if the writer has a complete knowledge of all the characters, it will work its way into the subtext.

The thing is though that once you dig deeper you may find uncomfortable things. Or stereotypical reasons. Or unbelievable motivations. The whole story could fall apart. And you'll have to sort that out. Greater complexity mean more work for the writer. 

You might have just wanted to write a sexy/romantic story about a woman who had sex with the wrong guy, because god damn it, it’s not her fault men can’t resist her. And that’s all it is, nothing deeper than that. But then what you’re writing is meaningless, which is fine (doesn’t mean it won’t be enjoyable), and there’s certainly a market for that. However, if you want people to really care what happens to your characters, you have to give them something more. You have to give them depth.

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11 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I understand this one!!! I'm so proud of myself...

Nancy Thompson said...

Sometimes the subtext isn't clear as you're writing it, but becomes so as you pile on the layers. It can be just as surprising to the author as it is to the reader.

mooderino said...

@Alex-Yay!

@Nancy-true, and sometimes readers can see things the writer never intended.

Sherri said...

Good post! It gave me something to think about. It's true about readers seeing things the writer never intended. After I wrote my first manuscript I let a newspaper editor read it. She saw all kinds of symbolism that I never dreamed of putting into the story! I didn't want to disappoint her; so I just nodded my head and went with it.

Lydia Kang said...

It's a good reminder to think of our characters as 3-D as possible, maybe even 4-D...
Thanks Moody. :)

Angela Brown said...

A great reminder to be aware of "what" we write and "how" we write something given readers have wicked imaginations and can come up with intriguing interpretations of what's written.

anthony stemke said...

A thought provoking post, complexity and depth in subtext is a valuable tool when used correctly.
Thanks for this estimable post, my spouse and I appreciate it.

Michael Offutt, Supra-Genius said...

I think that I gave my characters depth in the story I wrote but I'd need another person to read it and verify it.

mooderino said...

@Sherri-i think it's a good thing to have other possibilities in there. Nodding and saying nothing works for me too.

@Lydia-is the forth dimension how they smell?

@Angela-if the characters and storylines are rich enough I think it's inevitable, and a good thing.

@anthony-cheers, and my greetings to your spouse.

@michael-do you not have beta readers?

nutschell said...

Love this post! Depth and meaning are certainly things I look for in stories. I like to get into my character's heads and hearts and understand why they do the things they do. :)
Have the Happiest of Holidays!

nutschell
www.thewritingnut.com

mooderino said...

Cheers nutschell, you too.

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