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Saturday, August 14, 2010

Speaking of Subtext

Fiction writers can make their work more professional and add emotional and intellectual depth to their stories through subtext.

I know what you're thinking - you thought you had this fiction writing thing wired and now I'm tossing in another obstacle for you to trip over. Unlike subtext, I'm not being too subtle about it either. Yes, you need subtext in your work. What is it? It's the underlying theme, the implied relationship between characters, the ideas or thoughts not explicitly stated, the text below the surface of the story, the something sensed, but not seen.

Subtext is what makes fiction great, and it helps avoid that "on the nose" dialogue we all tend to use from time to time. I'm going to give you some examples of subtext so you'll know where to find it, and I'm going to tell you how you can incorporate subtext in your own work.

The use of subtext will improve your fiction. Authors, playwrights, screenwriters, and poets all use subtext. It can change the quality of dialogue, bring stories and scripts to life, and make your writing more professional.

In the film As Good As It Gets there's some good subtext when the ornery Jack Nicholson shoves his neighbor's pet dog down the chute. In the movies American Beauty, Annie Hall, ET, A Space Odyssey, and Ordinary People there's some great subtext. Be sure to watch Revolutionary Road. Better yet, read the book! Rent some of these older films and figure out where things are said but not said, where there's an implied meaning, something sensed but not seen by the viewer or reader; you'll begin to understand what I'm talking about.

Shakespeare used subtext in Macbeth and Romeo & Juliet. Bronte used subtext in Jane Eyre. There’s subtext in newer films like The Kids Are All Right and Avatar. Discover your own examples of subtext. Subtext is the subliminal element in creative writing that hits the recipient right in the gut or tears the heart apart. Subtext is a way we connect with characters and plot and certain characters in certain movies. We feel we've been there, done that; we know these people and this situation, and we understand. Dialogue is where you find subtext the most often.

Once aware of this advanced writing technique, you'll be able to find subtext whenever you watch a movie or read a novel.

Dialogue between two characters should stimulate the reader's curiosity, create tension in scene, and heighten the conflict. Good dialogue is often oblique while plain, ordinary talk is quite boring. Good dialogue is carefully crafted so that what isn't said directly is still communicated. You've most likely used subtext in your own conversations with a significant other, avoiding a question, responding in a sarcastic manner, or saying something but meaning something quite different.

Practice writing some dialogue between two people using subtext. It's not easy. Perhaps the dialogue is between a husband and wife. He comes home late and her dinner is ruined. He's cheerful and has no clue she's upset. She's ready to hit him with the overcooked casserole. And she made that casserole especially for him because it's his mother's recipe. Or it's their anniversary. Or she's ready to announce that she's pregnant.

How would this dialogue go? What is the subtext here?

It helps to read your work aloud. Your ear will catch what the eye does not. It also helps to listen to dialogue. As you ride the bus or sit in a restaurant with an annoying couple talking too loud in the adjoining booth, use those moments to your advantage and take out that journal. As talk goes on all around you, jot down notes regarding conversations. "Oh, my gosh, what has she done to herself? She's a mere shadow of her former self!" tells us quite a lot. Does that imply she looks better? Or worse? Thinner, obviously, but healthier?

In a scene between a husband and wife, the words, "Oh, Henry, honestly, is that what you're wearing tonight? The Carlsons will be there" tells us a lot about the couple and about the Carlsons, too, without overexplaining or being "on the nose." This is showing, not telling.

The comment, "Your dinner's cold. I already ate" gives us a clue how this particular evening will wind up with the wife sleeping upstairs and the husband down on the sofa.

Our lives are filled with stories, dialogue, and subtext. Be aware and you'll soon have your journal filled with notes. Read film scripts. You can get them online or in shops. Read dialogue in novels. Watch movies. Screenwriters are very adept at using subtext and so are best selling authors.

Professionals and advanced writers use subtext in their writing, adding depth, underlying meanings, and more complication to their stories. We like stories on many levels and one reason we prefer certain stories over others is due to the clever use of subtext.

You can use this technique, too.

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