Thursday, November 29, 2012
I Hear What You’re Saying but I Know What You’re Thinking with guest Jane Myers Perrine
The politician stands before the television cameras, confessing to a secret affair and asking forgiveness from those he represents. Next to him stands his wife.
He exudes contrition and confidence.
She stands at least a foot from him. When he turns toward her, she doesn’t make eye contact. When he gestures in her direction, she takes a step away from him.
What does she exude? Oh, she’s there, showing support like the good political wife, standing by her man but she’s hurt by his cheating and angry that he expects her to support him and furious that he wants her to display her wounds to the public so that the unfaithful jerk can keep his career.
How do we know that?
But you’ll say, “That’s just showing.” And I’ll agree, but what makes this subtext is that what you’re showing is different from or contrary to or beneath the surface of the presumed context of the scene. The basic definition for subtext is the art of saying or writing or doing one thing but meaning something else.
The scene, on the surface, is a loving wife standing by her husband, supporting him because she loves him, forgiving him to keep the family together. What’s really happening is that she can’t even stand close to the cheating husband because she’s seething inside.
You and I use subtext in all the time, to protect ourselves and others. When I get my hair cut, I know when my friends say, “Oh, you got your hair cut” they really mean, “Looks awful. She really scalped you this time.” That’s subtext. We use it in life. Experienced writers uses this in their books. It adds texture and depth to the plot and the characters.
In novels, subtext is like rocks at the bottom of a shallow, fast running creek. The boulders are the plot points that stick up and cause the water to flow around them. Subtext is barely visible and below the surface. It, too, changes the flow of the river or story in less obvious ways--but it still adds at least a ripple to the course of the story.
I’m going to use a number of examples because subtext may be hard to define. Actually, the definition isn’t hard but explaining how subtext is used is. With friends and family, we recognize the anger in a cold silence or a chilled tone of voice or a glare even when the words are polite.
Has your child ever been lost, wandered away from you in a store for a period of time? What’s the first thing you said to him when he turns up? Probably something like, “Don’t you ever do that again,” in a frantic and angry voice. The tone and words say one thing but they mean, “I love you and was so worried.”
Nancy Levine wrote The Lady in Red, a short, short story I loved. The heroine, obviously, was wearing a red velvet dress at a party. Subtext: sexy lady. But during the party, the nap of the velvet fell off and left a trail of fluff on the carpet and sofa. This made me think, “She’s like me!” and linked to embarrassing moments in my life. Now, you may not have picked up on that connection. I don’t even know if Ms. Levine meant that—which points out another problem with subtext. Because readers come to books from varied backgrounds, each may pick up on something else, maybe even a feeling the writer didn’t intend.
I once sent a friend an article about communication that I thought was hilarious. My friend called me and angrily demanded, “How dare you make fun of me by sending something that points out the problems in my marriage.” I had no idea she’d go off like that.
What makes it so hard to discuss subtext is that it’s nebulous and ill-defined, a blur hovering on the edge of reality and just out of reach. Subtleness and the lack of clarity makes teaching about it, even recognizing it incredibly difficult.
A popular scene which has now become a cliché is when the heroine doesn’t know the hero cares about her until a friend says, “He loves you. Can’t you see the way he looks at you?”
To me the subtext here is, “Good heavens, you’re dumb. Why didn’t you notice?”
How would you use subtext to show the heroine’s recognition that the hero does love her? Subtext is much more effective than a friend telling her. Perhaps the heroine notices a quick glance or a light touch or he leans toward her or defers to her opinion or brings her a cookie, her favorite, of course, or goes to see Twilight with her.
Another example. Many women complain when their mother-in-laws clean their daughter-in-laws’ houses. I really appreciated when my mother-in-law did this for me. I never knew why other women hated this because I wasn’t looking at subtext. What message is Annie’s mother-in-law Barb sending with her actions? What is Annie communicating with her response?
Pause for explanation: When I talked to Tina about the topic for this blog, she suggested something on craft. I chose subtext because I know very little about it but wanted to explore, to clarify my thinking. When I began three weeks ago—because I’m neurotic about meeting deadlines--I thought I’d finish in a day or two. Didn’t happen. I’m on my sixth or seventh rewrite. Didn’t realize until November 19 why I was having so much trouble.
This topic is incredibly complicated. It’s a technique which cannot easily be explained to a beginning writer and depends on well-defined characters with set goals, motivations, and conflicts. It doesn’t happen as you write a novel usually, but is usually layered on after you know your characters.
In order to understand the subtext in the scene about the mother-in-law cleaning the house, the reader has to know more about Annie and Barbara. That leads back to characterization which leads back to goal, motivation, and conflict. Entire books could be written on these topics. To understand the scene with the mother-in-law, we need to understand her goal, motivation, and conflict as well as Annie’s.
Returning to that example: Barb’s goal might be to suggest her son is living in a pig sty, her motivation could be to show Annie that Mommy is still in change; the conflict is that Barb and Annie don’t agree on what “clean” means. In addition, the internal conflict is Barb wants her son to be in a happy marriage and Annie’s not about to let herself be dominated. The section is not about cleaning. It’s about power and struggle.
Subtext looks beneath the surface to discover motivation, to show Barb’s goals and character—and to create conflict. Barb doesn’t say, “I’m afraid I’m losing my son.” No, she shows Annie she’s superior and stronger and Annie will never measure up.
Subtext. It’s a top layer that rests on so many assumptions and presupposes the writer has the foundation of building characters and knows about goals and all that other writer-y stuff. It’s not just one thing. It’s many and it’s complicated. Of course, it’s also your choice not to use subtext—but I bet it will turn up anyway because if we know our characters well, subtext happens. That man in love can’t help but smiling goofily at his girl even at a business meeting. Couples in love can’t help but glow or emit sexual tension zinging back and forth between them even at dinner with their spouses. Try as we do to hide emotions, they show.
Here’s another example and several possible ways to interpret subtext.
J.D. loves to play football. When his coach pulls him off the bench to go in for an injured player, he says, “Yes. Coach,” grabs his helmet and heads in. Let’s look at the subtext for that scene.
If J.D. doesn’t hesitate, the subtext is,
1. “Finally I get to show my stuff”
2. “I’ll do anything Coach says.”
3. “I don’t care about my friend because I want to get in the game.”
If J.D. pauses for a second before leaping off the bench, the subtext is:
1. “I don’t know if I can do this” or
2. “My best friend has just been injured and
a. I’m afraid I’ll be injured.”
b. I’m worried about him.”
3. Add your own here.
But, you may wonder, how does the reader know? Because subtext is not used in a vacuum. If you’ve created a believable and deep character, the reader remembers background and thoughts. Did his mother ever sob, “Your brother died playing football”? Did he ever tell a friend, “There’s nothing more important in my life than getting a football scholarship to college”? If you’ve set it up, the subtext is clear.
Still, there are lots options and a great deal of set up. That’s what makes subtext both tough and intentional.
EXERCISE: I’m going to give a few sentences for you to build as subtext. Or, probably more useful, scan your WIP and find a place you could add subtext. Take a risk. Find numerous possibilities. Play with them. Here are some sentences you can practice with.
1. After tossing her dark hair back, Aphrodisia (yes, character names can be subtext) tilted her head and purred, “You’re wrong, Mr. Bond.”
Take Two: After blinking, Maryanne leaned forward and stated, “You’re wrong, Mr. Bond.”
Can these both have the same subtext? Of course they can—you’re the writer. You decide.
2. “Oh, sure.” (So many possibilities)
I feel as if I’ve been fighting this topic for weeks and can only hope you will accept the offering I lay before you. I hope this blog—as torn and patched together as it is--has been helpful to you, has illuminated the subject and challenged you to leap into the fray armed with subtext and thrust it into your latest book.
I'd love to hear some of your favorite examples of subtext as well.
Award-winning writer Jane Myers Perrine has worked as a Spanish teacher, minister, cook, rifle instructor, program director in a state hospital, and been an active volunteer but she always wanted to write. Finally, she found time and has published books with Avalon Books, Steeple Hill Love Inspired, and FaithWords, a division of Hachette Book Group. Her short pieces have appeared in the Houston Chronicle and Woman’s World magazine.
Jane’s Butternut Creek series is about a young minister serving in the beautiful Hill Country of Texas and is filled with affection and humor. The Welcome Committee of Butternut Creek, the first book in the series, was published in April, 2012. The Matchmakers of Butternut Creek will be available in November 20, 2012. The third book, The Wedding Planners of Butternut Creek will be available in late 2013.
With her minister husband George, Jane lives north of Austin where their lives are controlled by two incredibly spoiled tuxedo cats.
The Matchmakers of Butternut Creek
Undaunted, the Widows of Butternut Creek continue their search to find a bride for Pastor Adam in The Matchmakers of Butternut Creek, the second of the Butternut Creek series.
For once, Adam and the Widows—the elderly ladies who run the church Adam serves--agree on something. Gussie Milton is the perfect woman for him. But Gussie is skittish after a traumatic experience in college. Oh, sure, she'd like a relationship but has trouble trusting and throws herself into caring for her aging parents, running her photography business, and serving the church. As Adam court Gussie, the Widows push and Gussie shies away. Can the Widows' meddling change the couple's lives forever? Here’s a hint: the third book in the series has the title The Wedding Planners of Butternut Creek.
And...Jane is generously giving away one of her Butternut Creek books to one lucky winner (winner's choice). Comment today for your opportunity. Winner announced in the Weekend Edition.