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Subtext I: In a Nutshell

Many would-be novelists -- especially those aspiring to write mystery, suspense, or thriller books -- have a great "idea," by which they usually mean a plot: a series of logically related events. But an interesting plot doesn't equal a good novel.

And the reason for that fact lies in reader expectations: they want to understand a story progressively, on their own -- not have everything "spelled out" for them; they want to experience emotion and at least a hint of mystery, especially early in a story.

The text of a story includes the plot and the description of setting and character, but if that's all you give to your reader, s/he might as well read a news article. What readers want in fiction is the text and hints about theme, character, and foreshadowing that aren't explicitly stated; that's what subtext is for.

Personally, I didn't understand subtext (or at least how to achieve it) until I read Elizabeth Lyon's A Writer's Guide to Fiction (2004). In that book, subtext and its role are touched upon, but Lyon's recent booklet, Writing Subtext (2013), gives a more thorough treatment of this elusive but critical part of the fiction craft.

An Unscientific Survey

A book I won't be discussing here is The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot, by Charles Baxter. His treatment of the topic is more like literary criticism than the typical how-to book on writing craft. However, it's a deep look at how literary novels use subtext, and I heartily recommend it -- just not when you're only starting to attack the subject.

Besides Baxter's book, most of the other craft books I've read give little or no mention of subtext. For example, Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages (2000) -- an excellent guide, with exercises, to improving your writing -- mentions subtext only once, in reference to setting.

Lukeman describes how the same piece of casual dialogue between a father and son in their living room will have a completely different feel if it's set instead in a prison's visiting room:
There is suddenly a layer of subtext, of immediacy, of tragedy -- and all without telling us a word. A writer's chief objective is always subtlety, to convey information without actually saying anything, and setting is one powerful way to do that (Lukeman, p. 178).
While Lukeman is correct in what he's saying, more information on the other types of subtext, and the processes for developing it, would improve his book.

If you're looking for a treatment of subtext that's mid way between the brief reference above in The First Five Pages and the exhaustiveness of Writing Subtext, I would recommend another book by Elizabeth Lyon, Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore.

Manuscript Makeover treats subtext within the context of other parts of the craft: for example, creating movement and suspense (pp. 131-3); and raising questions in the reader's mind (p. 247).

Defining Subtext

As I've illustrated above, Lukeman defines subtext as a layer of immediacy and mood, achieved without literally stating it.

Lyon agrees with that idea, but she defines subtext through etymology and characterization: "Literally, you have the text and you have what is below -- that is, sub the text. Everything hidden from awareness or observation of characters other than your point-of-view character is a form of subtext" (Lyon, Manuscript Makeover p. 138).

Later in the same book, Lyon gives a definition which stresses the importance of subtext in creating suspense: "Subtext is what is hidden below the surface of a scene that contributes tension or conflict" (p. 247).

Creating Foundations, Rescuing Weak Scenes

Mood. Immediacy. Hidden thoughts, emotions, or agendas. Story questions. Tension. Character goals. Conflict. Without at least a few of these qualities, even the world's greatest plot has little to offer a reader. Your story will read like an outline: dull and dry.

Lyon shows two ways in which subtext can help -- even rescue -- your story. First and fundamentally, the effects of subtext (as listed in the above paragraph) fulfill a basic requirement of telling stories on paper: creating and maintaining the fictive dream (Lyon's e-book, Writing Subtext, n.p.).

So you've got your fictive dream established, but you notice one or more of your scenes lacks drama. Subtext can help. For example, Lyon shows how subtext in a ho-hum police-procedural scene can ramp up suspense. Her example is the stock struggle for dominance between two cops -- say a constable versus a chief inspector -- at a crime scene.

Yes, the cop-versus-cop scene been done so many times, in novels and on TV. But subtext can help:
Subtext could involve the protagonist wanting the big gun to recognize his authority, to validate his judgements, and respect his territory. There could be subtle posturing as they talked, smoked, and issued orders to lower-ranked men (Lyon, Manuscript Makeover, p. 248).
And voila, you have tension from subtext -- not the surface action of the scene, which may have little (if any) movement or suspense.

The How-to of Subtext

In Writing Subtext, Lyon details three elements of learning subtext:
  • familiarize yourself with the "building materials" of subtext (see Diagram 1 below);
  • be aware of the six types of subtext at your disposal;
  • use an iterative process in editing.

Diagram 1. (Click to enlarge.)

Building Materials

From the list above, Lyon first details the bricks and mortar of subtext. Four types exist: character development, nature, the human-made environment, and mood/atmosphere.

For details on each of those types, refer to Diagram 1, which I created as a summary of Lyon's words on the topic of "building materials" (n.p.).

And the Rest . . .

For the rest of the how-to points listed above, I point you to both of Elizabeth Lyon's books: Writing Subtext and Manuscript Makeover. To really master subtext you have to read it "in action," as it were, and then practice recognizing it in every new story you read; these two books provide plenty of novel excerpts that illustrate subtext.

Works Cited