Thursday, July 18, 2013

Subtext makes for some interesting math

The previous posts about strong words, the benefits and dangers of implied meanings, voice, body language, and description were all a way of talking about subtext.

Now, I know this isn’t true for everyone, but I’ve read some posts/blogs where people seem to want to create a marked division between commercial and literary writing. Often one side is bad-mouthing the other.

I’ve heard ‘subtext’ thrown around like it’s a dirty word.

Subtext isn’t exclusively for literary works, for MFA grads looking down from lofty, academic heights on the commercial-lit slums.

Subtext IS showing, not telling. It’s using implied meanings, it’s using subtle word play, like when the character uses ‘I’. It’s in body language, metaphor, description, and a million other fun things that give writing depth, and make it memorable. Chances are, your favourite scenes from your favorite books are packed-full of subtext. Remember this exercise I linked earlier?

Words without subtext are dead, nothing more than the bland combination of letters. 2 + 2 will always equal 4, but with subtext, it could equal 5, 10, or 23, because the reader is bringing in that added element themselves.

Subtext brings life, it brings breath, it brings volume, it brings weight and depth.

I’ve said, oh, so many times that I am sick of hearing myself say it, that I hate writing background. I prefer to write the implication of background, hand it off to my beta readers, and go kicking and screaming into edits... adding in the absolute minimum of background information so the story makes sense.

Here’s another rough first-draft snippet from SCARLIGHT, pay attention to what I’ve bolded. Also, since we’ve talked about the use of ‘I’, pay attention to where it shows up, and where it doesn’t. What does Jay notice/describe, and what does he ignore? Think about what the implied background is. What am I saying, not directly, but through subtext about Jay, his father, Aricia, the principle, etc?

They try to call dad. Of course they do. Of course he doesn’t pick up. The end-of-day bell rings, the halls fill with bodies. I ask for a box from the office and clean my locker out. Everyone watches, lingering, whispering. Even Ari slows down as she goes by, the buckles and chains on her Coach bag catch the dull, fluorescent light and transform it into something beautiful.
When I’m done, I march back to the office and stack the school textbooks neatly on the secretary’s desk. I sit on the sofa, the leather one which is dyed British racing-green and has mahogany-stained claw legs. The box on the floor, and my bag is on my lap. I could listen to music, but I don’t. I could pull out my sketchbook, but I don’t. I sit. I wait.
They keep calling dad. He still doesn’t pick up.
Actions speak louder than words.
I’m all packed up, ready to leave if they can’t do what I asked.
There are phone calls. School is out at three o’clock. Four-thirty rolls by, the halls are empty, the secretary is long gone, but the principle is still in his office with Dreschner.
He comes out only once to ask me if I know the girl’s name.
“Pink dreadlocks, green eyes. There’s got to be only one.”
He frowns, and closes the door.

One line I really hope you paid attention to was, “Actions speak louder than words.”

Look at the placement.

It’s not in the paragraph where Jay is making his very obvious point... sitting on the sofa with his stuff in his lap, not listening to music or opening his sketchbook.

It’s after the line about his dad not picking up, then is followed by Jay saying he’s ready to go if they don’t do what he wants.

What am I trying to say by placing it there, specifically?

...hopefully, you’re getting that Jay has learned this behavior, this ‘lesson’, from his father’s own actions. I wanted to link them together, so I moved lines around so I could position it in that exact spot.

Another small thing, I don’t know if anyone got, is the line about Ari. Jay talks about ‘everyone’ in 4 words. He takes 29 to notice Ari (his ex-girlfriend) slightly slowing down, and stares hard enough to know her bag’s brand, and how light plays on the accessories.

Description, voice, subtext: it’s often in what’s not said directly, but the clues are all there, if you take the time to line them up, and that’s what I mean when I say 2 + 2 could add up to 5, 10, or 23. Some readers love hunting out subtext, others would have skimmed the line about Ari and not given it a nanosecond of additional thought.

There’s no right or wrong, but I think, as a writer, I want to cater to both kinds of reader. SO, I don’t want to mire anyone in unnecessarily convoluted words to draw attention to the subtext and bore the heck out of those who hate it, nor do I want to leave it all out and leave hungry-subtext-lovers dissatisfied. There’s a happy medium when you go for quality over quantity. Efficiency.

Choosing strong, effective words allows you to keep subtext short and effective. One word instead of ten.

Whether I succeed or not is up to the reader. All I can do is state my intention, my reasoning, and my strategy for achieving it.

This is how I like to write.

Good or bad, love it or hate it, these are qualities of my voice, as a writer.


  1. All that you have been saying is starting to come into a clearer focus for me now. Nothing you said struck me as wrong at any point, just slightly different, and I think I know why. It deals with something you wrote above: "Now, I know this isn’t true for everyone, but I’ve read some posts/blogs where people seem to want to create a marked division between commercial and literary writing. Often one side is bad-mouthing the other." I'm not quite sure what you mean when you say "commercial writing", but I think that there is a big line between each of the three main categories of writing: genre, literary, and mainstream. While I prefer genre fiction, I have close to the same respect for literary writing. If it's very well-written literary writing, then it gets equal respect. A large part of it, I think, is that literary writing is almost ABOUT (pretend that it is bold and not all-caps) subtext, whereas genre and mainstream writing is about exploring ideas on the surface (especially speculative fiction). Both are legitimate, assuming they are done well. Also, I think most of what you've written in these posts can be transferred to any kind of writing with minor tweaks. Anyway, thanks for writing these (as I probably should have mentioned before) and dealing with my comments. I think I've learned more about literary, the category of writing I'm least adept in.

    1. "Also, I think most of what you've written in these posts can be transferred to any kind of writing with minor tweaks"

      That was my purpose :) To talk about it in a way where it could be adapted to different styles/genres/etc.

      My writing style is *mine*, just as yours should be *yours*, but anyone should aspire to making their writing as effective as possible, and subtext
      (through multiple devices) is an excellent way to do so.

      The sad thing is, I think maybe people hear/read the word *subtext* and get flash-back-nightmares to reading 'Lord of the Flies' in high-school (or something similar), but subtext is in EVERY genre, not just the 'classics'


Type me out a line of Shakespeare or a line of nonsense. Dumb-blonde-jokes & Irish jokes will make me laugh myself silly :)