|Missy and her mom in honor of Mother's Day|
Ways to Use Subtext
I’ve always considered subtext to be the thoughts in a character’s head while he/she is saying something else. Which can be fun to read. But after digging through a couple of my how-to books, I’ve learned that subtext is much more. And I’ll only have the space to touch on it a bit today.
First, let me list the two reference books I used for this post:
Story Physics: Harnessing the Underlying Forces of Storytelling by Larry Brooks
Between the Lines: Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing by Jessica Page Morrell.
Morrell quotes Linda Seger (Unforgettable Characters) as saying subtext is “what the character is really saying beneath and between the lines.” If you think about how people relate to each other, this happens because:
--they (hopefully!) act polite even if their thoughts aren’t polite
--they sometimes can’t bring themselves to say what they mean or feel
--they aren’t ready to acknowledge their true feelings
This can be really useful in working with our characters. Morrell suggests using subtext in places where our characters are in denial or feeling confused or vulnerable. You can do this with dialogue and internal thoughts. Also with actions. And subtext can inform scene choices.
One thing that’s important to remember is that often the character won’t understand herself or be ready to admit feelings, yet the reader will know! So it’s fun for the reader to watch her in denial. Or it makes the reader cheer her on, hoping she’ll figure it out soon. This is especially useful in romance novels.
This technique is also a great way to create humor. It can be funny to watch a hero smile and nod while inside he’s about to grind his teeth to dust. Or to see his fear when he realizes he’s falling in love, yet he’s still acting as if everything is the same as always.
So use subtext to tell your story in a layer deeper than just what the character says or does. Let the reader inside to know the true story.
In Story Physics, Brooks talks about subtext a little differently. He says: “In fiction, subtext is the offspring of setting, characterization, backstory, and dramatic exposition.” Then he goes on to say, “…subtext is always available as a layer to make your story richer, deeper, and more compelling.”
I found it interesting that Brooks talks about subtext as pretty much anything that informs the story, such as social values of your characters, the time period you set it in, and the place where you set it. He says, “Subtext is the universe within which your story unfolds.”
Some examples to help you think about subtext in this way: Brooks shares the example of the movie Witness, set in the Amish belief system. He also uses the example of The Help, set within the prejudice and social norms of the day. But subtext can be more than religious or social barriers.
Brooks goes on to talk about theme in relation to subtext. He says: “Subtext often equates to and facilitates theme.” But I won’t have time to go into that in this post. I may actually do a Part 2 down the road.
Still, I hope I’ve given you a taste of how to use subtext. I’d love to hear how you use it or have seen it used.
Today, I’ll be giving away two copies (e-book or print) of my new release from Love Inspired, The Doctor’s Second Chance. Please let me know in the comments if you’d like to be entered! Winners announced in the Weekend Edition.
The Bachelor's Baby
Jake West's troubled cousin leaves him with a most unusual parting gift—her newborn baby girl! And now the small-town contractor is forced to seek help from the very woman he resents—the new big-city pediatrician who practically stole his uncle's practice, Violet Crenshaw. Violet knows she shouldn't be consorting with the enemy. But she can't resist the adorable baby and her handsome new caretaker. Violet traded her chance at motherhood for her career years ago. But raising a family with Jake could be everything she's ever wanted.
4 Stars from RT Book Reviews Magazine