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Subtext II: Types of Subtext

My earlier post "Subtext I: In a Nutshell" detailed the four building materials of subtext: characterization, human "stuff," nature, and mood/atmosphere. Those are the raw materials for creating subtext.

But what about subtext itself: is it one "thing" or does it come in different varieties? Well, it comes in six types, as Elizabeth Lyon discusses in Writing Subtext.

If you can learn to identify, and use, each type of subtext, your fiction will carry heightened emotional depth and suspense.

The Types

  • Sexual Attraction
  • Predator Menace
  • In Dialogue
  • Unaware Characters
  • Naïve Characters
  • In Setting

The Types in Action

A good exercise is to first find a passage of fiction that has foreshadowing and/or prompts you (as a reader) to ask story questions. Then, try to identify which type of subtext the author has used.

To get you started, here are some samples from novels. (Note: Elizabeth Lyon's book Writing Subtext gives examples of the types, but I have independently researched and written the following ones.)

Sexual Attraction

I pointed out in Subtext I that character development is one of the four raw materials of subtext; use it to suggest your characters' hidden agendas or motives.

For example, in The Paying Guests (2014) -- a novel about a love triangle, and the murder it produces -- Sarah Waters uses the characters' gestures, actions, and speech to hint at sexual attraction between the female protagonist and her boarder.

In the following quotation, the young protagonist Frances has spied her married boarder, Lillian, reading Tolstoy's Anna Karenina as she (Lillian) shells peas in the kitchen. Frances walks into the kitchen and remarks on the Tolstoy novel; Lillian invites her to sit, discuss the novel, and help her shell peas. (Underlined words below show phrases that deliver the subtext.)
Their fingers collided in the pages as Lillian retrieved the novel. . . . [Frances] read the scene through while Lillian shelled the peas; soon, their fingers colliding again as they reached into the bowl, they were shelling the peas together, discussing novels, poems, plays, the authors they did and didn't admire . . . (Waters, p. 104)
The actions of these two characters -- letting their fingers touch, both on the novel's pages and in the bowl of peas -- hint at the sexual tension between them. Furthermore, discussing literature (poems especially) is pretty intimate for a landlord-tenant relationship. Furthermore, The Paying Guests is set in London in 1922, so it's reasonable to assume that social codes were stricter than now: at that time, such intimacy would have been even more provocative.

Still on the topic of character speech, remember from the "Placements" section above that in dialogue is one of two placements to use for subtext. (The other is in setting.)

Predator Menace

Elizabeth Lyon writes about dialogue (essentially an aspect of character development) can carry foreboding subtext: "A gripping technique occurs when characters are not really talking about what is going on or about to happen, but the reader knows full well -- and fears it, especially when subtext foreshadows danger." (Lyon, Writing Subtext, n.p.)

My novel The Two Row Scholar, contains a childhood flashback scene in which the protagonist, Sol, is sexually assaulted by his older cousin Danny, who is also his piano teacher. During a lesson at Danny's parents' apartment -- which is currently empty except for Sol and Danny -- Sol is sitting at the piano as he prepares for a conservatory exam. (The underlined phrases below contain subtext, foreshadowing the coming assault.)

Leaning over the keyboard, Danny opened the Grade Eight exam book to the Brahms Waltz in A-Flat. “Have the place to ourselves now. To really make progress, me and you need privacy.”

[Several paragraphs omitted.]

“OK, before we work through this great piece, play through it. Start to finish.”

Sol stumbled along the notes....

Danny snapped his fingers. “Seem to be daydreaming, kid. You’ve got to focus. And you’re stiff as a board—I can help you relax.” Danny got up and rubbed Sol’s shoulders.

He’d never done that before, and Sol flinched.

Hey, relax. I’m going to help you tame this waltz, but you’ve got to help me first.

“You said we’d change the left-hand fingering.”

Help your cousin out, like this.” Danny’s hand slid down from Sol’s shoulders to the top button of his shirt. Danny’s fingers, as big as cucumbers, undid the button. And the next one.

The actual assault begins just after the above quotation. Danny's words sound innocuous, masking his predatory intent. But the reader -- at a gut level -- isn't fooled, and so the subtext has heightened the suspense.

In Dialogue

Subtext in dialogue applies particularly to children's fiction. The reason is that so much of the story is (usually) told via dialogue (versus narration).

While kids may not be able to verbalize -- or even perceive -- the subtext, adults can do a first reading, and then discuss the protagonist's emotional state and the story's theme(s) with their child or student. Without the subtext, neither emotion nor theme would be there to talk about.

Elizabeth Lyon, details how in-dialogue subtext delivers theme and emotion in the children's novel Meeting Miss 405, by Lois Peterson. If you're a children's author, go to Lyon's book Writing Subtext for her analysis.

Unaware Characters

Through narrative context or from a character's thoughts, the reader can know more than the character does; this type of subtext often makes the reader fret about impending danger to that character.

Here is an example of narrative context delivering unaware-character subtext. In her suspense novel Innocent Blood, P.D. James employs three POV characters:

  • Philippa Palfrey, the protagonist, who was adopted out of her parents' care at eight years old;
  • Maurice Palfrey, Philippa's adoptive father; and
  • Norman Scase, the father of a murdered girl.

As the story opens, Philippa can't remember her biological parents or her life before being adopted. The fact that she was eight at the time of adoption thus suggests that something traumatic must have happened to her in early childhood; otherwise, why would she be unable to remember anything of her real parents, her neighbourhood friends, or the home she was in? So Philippa is already an unaware character, and the reader worries for her.

But P.D. James goes further, by having Norman Scase's POV scenes contain worrying information about Philippa's biological mother, Mary Ducton. At this point in the novel, Scase finds out through a private investigator that Mary -- the murderer of Scase's daughter -- is being released from prison within a couple of months. He also learns more about her long stay in jail:
[He] learned when Mary Ducton came out of her self-imposed isolation and began working in the prison library, when she was transferred . . . from Durham to Melcome Grange, when she was admitted to the prison hospital for treatment after an assault by three of the other prisoners . . .
These facts are from Scase's POV, not Philippa's, so we as readers are apprehensive. What's going to happen when Philippa -- who has just obtained legal ability to find her biological mother -- and Mary meet?

And, besides being a murderer, what kind of woman is Mary: someone who prompted three other women to assault her so badly she needed hospitalization and transfer to a different jail? Philippa can't even entertain these questions, because she doesn't have Scase's knowledge (AKA awareness).

Naïve Characters

A character who is naïve -- or innocent, or even ignorant -- primes readers' emotions and increases their commitment to the story. The emotion, usually one of pity or sympathy, results from the reader's cognizance of what the character cannot know.

Being a child, being mentally limited, mentally ill, or brain damaged, prevents the character from understanding critical parts or aspects of the story's world. And therein lies his or her pathetic quality.

The innocent-child character illustrates this principle well. For example, in the heartbreaking novel Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul, by David Adams Richards, a small boy named Little Joe is too young to understand that actually arresting someone is different than playing a game of "lawman" with friends.

The scene from which I've quoted below takes place on an Indian reserve in Canada. Roger is a supposedly bigoted white man occupying a lot that the reserve maintains is within its territory; on the reserve, Markus is a teenager who is minding Little Joe.

Other factors bring the situation to a standoff, and Roger arms himself with a rifle and barricades himself inside, as a group of men and boys from the reserve surround the house. At a crisis point, Roger fires his rifle and the bullet strikes and kills Little Joe.
Little Joe, who had run toward the house with his [unloaded] BB gun to arrest Roger and take him to jail, suddenly said, "Oooo, Markus," and fell face first into the mud. . . .

Little Joe, with his cheeks painted with stickers and his small cowboy boots, and his coupons for free pizza he had gotten from the delivery man, was going to take Roger to jail and, he told Markus, give him a pizza.
Little Joe's innocent perceptions contrast with the grown-up --and deadly -- reality of the standoff. And that tragically ironic subtext can bring tears to a reader's eyes; it did, to mine.

In Setting

Where subtext within the setting of a story is possible -- and not all tales lend themselves to this technique -- the writer's doing so can produce a strong reinforcement of theme. But you'll have to read my post, Subtext III: Reinforcing Theme with Symbolism (link coming soon), to find out how.

Name It and Claim It

When you read fiction as a writer, looking for aspects of the craft in action, you can cement theory in your mind and dramatically increase your confidence and skill set. At least, that's my experience.

The principle at work is "name it and claim it." In other words, when you learn a technique that's new to you, take a novel (or several) and try to find an example at work in the text; copy it out slowly and pretend that you're writing the words. Imagine how your current project could employ the technique.

So try it now. In a novel you've read or are reading, look for the six types of subtext by name, and copy the passages out: for yourself, name them and claim them.