When we walk into a room, we use all our senses to assess the situation. We pick up the mood, check out who’s talking to who and register how welcome we are by any number of subtle body language clues given out by others such as facial expressions, eye movements, body posture and gestures. Often what is not said tells us more than what is said.
Subtext is the term used to show how we reveal conflict, rivalry, envy or relationships between characters when the writer wants the reader to draw these conclusions. The subtext reveals the true feelings and motivations using implicit rather than explicit methods. You want the reader to feel the tension rather than read about it and not revealing everything straight away is a good way to keep readers interested.
In conversation most people don’t reveal everything in a straightforward manner and the most frequent way subtext is disclosed is through dialogue. Sol Stein in his book How to Grow a Novel’ states: “What counts in dialogue is not what is said but what is meant.”
Subtext is not meant to confuse so a writer needs to be clear on what motivates their characters even if their dialogue is ambivalent. To quote David Mamet, "Characters might hardly ever say what they mean, but they always say something designed to get what they want."
We understand the subtext through a character’s actions and reactions.
She lies still, feeling the length of his body along hers; she wonders if she could live without its known familiar lines.
‘Rob wants to shoot another video this evening. Friend of his has a small studio.’ She doesn’t respond. ‘The sound’ll be better.’
‘We’ve all to meet Rob at the Singing Kettle - round sixish.’
She wonders what Billy would do if he knew about Jack.
‘I better get going.’
Billy grunts in response.
‘Bring me back some fags’ he throws after her as she closes the door.
Outside the room Gemma slumps, head bowed, against the door. If only Billy would get a job, they’d be able to move out of this stinking rotten place with its peeling damp-stained wallpaper, black mould and grime. It’s always been just the two of them but she’s getting real tired carrying them both. Inside Billy starts practising his new riff. Someone in the flat below turns on the radio and a thumping bass beat reverberates up through the floor. She’d better move or she’ll be late.
Here the reader can tell by Gemma’s responses during the conversation, as well as by her interior monologue and action after leaving the room, that something’s up. We also know that Billy is blissfully unaware of her unfaithfulness and her feelings about him.
Writers can also use subtext to engage with political, sexual or religious ideas which if presented overtly would put some readers off the book. Hemingway’s short story, Hills Like White Elephants is often given as an excellent demonstration of how to use subtext.
Whether you use subtext in dialogue, for theme or to show relationships between characters it is a technique worth studying and using it adds layers of emotion and meaning to a story.
Last week I started off slow but by the end of the week I’d achieved a certain momentum in my work, but again this week – even though I worked Saturday and Sunday – I’m starting slow again. Hopefully I’ll pick up more speed as the week goes by. I've set myself the goal of two chapters a week. I find that having writing goals works for me. I just have to make sure I don’t beat myself up if I don’t achieve them – use them as a challenge, a motivating factor, not as something that I guilt myself about – being flexible about achieving them is important.
None of the places in John Bunyon’s Pilgrim’s Progress quite fit the bill for where I am currently as far as my novel goes. Fortunately, and as long as I can keep writing, I’ve avoided the Slough of Despond and writing the novel was more like an exhilarating mountain climb than Hill Difficulty. I seriously want to avoid the Valley of Humiliation and Castle Doubting and I have to admit, I would probably say that my goal is to finish editing and spend a little time on Plain Ease.
I regret that I'm running out of doodles and drawings to put up and not finding the time to do more so I might start recycling soon. And my time on social media at the moment is limited (miss you all on Google+) but the reason I'm blogging is because of my writing...so I must continue to edit - and write!
penguin business men
huddle with heads together –
eat hot paninis
Something to be aware of:
This is a helpful post for those who have a book ready to go:
http://amzn.to/18SbSaG Gold Dragon Haiku - my first attempt at publishing poetry!
Join me on Twitter at: teagankearney@modhaiku
To all story lovers out there, good reading, and to those of you who write, good writing.