Monday, September 14, 2009

Subtext in Fiction

I hear it too - the swirling discussion that patters like rain on a roof - rain that never stops, though it may diminish to mist for a time, but will, invariably, begin to pour again. It starts in the book store or the coffee shop, or the writer's conference, or inside the pages of a book, and one person leans in to the ear of another and says, "Christian fiction?" And the answer comes, "What is wrong with Christian fiction?"

The question is so used now it's thread bare - but we use it still, because, most likely, no one has come up with a more useful answer. Recently I listened in on a roundtable discussion involving representatives from Christian retail stores. The host asked something like, "Is Christian fiction growing up?" The unanimous response was, "Yes!" (oh joy!) followed by a singular punctuating voice that said, "Finally!" (oh dear!)

It made me wonder, "How do they know? By what standard are they measuring this perceived maturation?" I've asked around, and while there is general agreement that the quality of Christian fiction is on the rise, no one could put their finger on any one measurement. And when I stumbled on a possible answer for both the question and the reason no one can point to it, I had to smile.

I smiled because the answer is one of the most difficult things in fiction writing to talk about - subtext.

Subtext is more easily recognized by its absence - oh blah, the story is flat and cliched - than it is by its presence -the words lingered long after I put the book down.

What lingered? The tight writing? The apt similes? The arching metaphor? No, the subtext. Charles Baxter says subtext is ". . . the realm of what haunts the imagination: the implied, the half-visible, and the unspoken." He also uses the phrase, "unspoken soul-matter".

Subtext is created by crafting together elements of story which point to deeper meanings than what is being played out on the page. Elements such as staging, dialogue, description, inflection, irony - yes the very things we use to create plot, we also use to create subtext. And it is wholly intended. It is crafted, meant to be there, lingering below the surface, unexpressed but as solidly present as the characters themselves. They are the invisible threads that hold the story together, make it compelling, and give it meaning.

In Gilead, Marilynne Robinson creates John Ames, a Reverend, elderly and ill who writes to his too young son about his life in hopes of imparting something of himself to the boy who will grow up without his father. Listen to all that is not said here:

"And memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either. It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing. I mean, that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve."

The unexpressed yearning in this short passage caused me to lower the book to my lap and stare out the window, thinking for a long time. It made me want to call my children in from the backyard and hold them.

There is a small but growing number of Christian fiction writers who have allowed their theology to move from obvious and stated, to the realm of subtext where - though whispered, and even unspoken, it speaks to the the soul of the reader with great efficacy.

It is difficult to discuss sub-text, but that shouldn't stop us trying. Can you point to a book that has lingered with you - spoken to you in whispers? Can you point to a scene in a book that spoke of something with such clarity without actually speaking of it?
Writers, how have you begun to use subtext in your writing?


Kathleen Popa said...

Oh bless you, Bonnie! I love this post. I'd never put the name to it as you did, but this is exactly what I love in fiction: ". . . the realm of what haunts the imagination: the implied, the half-visible, and the unspoken."

One of my favorite novels, The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, is... oh, I'd say 85% subtext. I just went looking for an example and found one on the very first page:

"I often wonder who will be the last person to see me alive. If I had to bet, I'd bet on the delivery boy from the Chinese take-out. I order in four nights out of seven. Whenever he comes I make a big production of finding my wallet. He stands in the door holding the greasy bag while I wonder if this is the night I'll finish off my spring roll, climb into bed and have a heart attack in my sleep."

Okay, not cheery. But in a way, it is. When you get to know main character Leo Gursky, you fall in love with the courageous way he copes with loneliness, with his amazing talent for love.

I so recommend this book. But be prepared for a few (words).

Subtext is just the principle of "show don't tell" shined to a polish. When I write, I keep in mind Emily Dickinson's advice to "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant."

This means I give the reader a character with impulses and responses she will understand, so there will be no need to spell things out. I want my reader not only to understand the character by her actions, by the things she doesn't say, but to also feel, in the same way, that the character understands her.

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

Hi, Bonnie!

I definitely agree about the importance and the growth of subtext in Christian fiction. I'm finding it more and more, which makes me so excited! I am definitely more drawn to--and most likely to keep coming back to--novels that have profound subtext.

This is something that I really try to use in my own stories. One way I do this is by asking a question and leaving space for an answer without providing a pat, neatly tied conclusion. I try to let my characters explore their journey to an answer and my readers as well.

Here's a thought: do you think this falls into the "Show, don't tell" category? Maybe the subtext is a "showing" that the straight "telling" can't compare to.

One writer who does this beautifully is Charles Martin, especially his third book, "When Crickets Cry". He says so much in there and much of it is unwritten.

I loved this post because it's about something that I'm really passionate about in a Story! Thank you!

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

Okay, I am laughing right now! Because when I started typing this, Kathleen's comment wasn't posted yet. So the comment about "Show, don't tell" in mine was completely unprompted... so funny! Great minds, eh? This is really encouraging to me as a pre-published writer!

Lori Benton said...

"The unexpressed yearning in this short passage caused me to lower the book to my lap and stare out the window, thinking for a long time."

That's the first indication that a book has touched me on that deeper level--when I realize I've stopped reading and am staring off at nothing, having gone away somewhere inside my soul (selah), still firmly in the grip of the book.

Wonderful post!

@Kathleen, I love this: "I want my reader not only to understand the character by her actions, by the things she doesn't say, but to also feel, in the same way, that the character understands her."

That's a new way of looking at it for me, but it rings so true. The characters I've most loved in stories are the ones I feel would "get" me, if they only knew me as I've come to know them.

Patti Hill said...

Oh my, yes! Subtext is the difference between looking across a glinting lake and swimming through the bottom weeds, letting them slide across your body. Tickling. Startling. Shivering. The reader is a participant in the story, not just an observer. Do I have that right, Bonnie?

I'm listening to The Help, not a Christian fiction example but full of subtext by its very topic...Southern maids in the 60s talking about their experiences in white households. Like Katy, I have to issue a language alert for this book. But it's goooood.

Note to self: Learn more about subtext.

Unknown said...

So often, when I come to this blog to read the posts and the comments, I yearn for a place where we can all sit, coffee/tea in hand and chat about these things.

I so admire the people who gather here - everyone who posts a comment, how they think and so openly share their journey so we can all benefit.

I agree with Katy and Kristen's take on sub-text as part of 'show not tell'. I would venture it is the lion's share of this idea and that is what I will teach next week at a writer's conference next week.

I agree, Lori, when we run into a book that lingers with us, it's a great idea to pick it up again and start looking for how the author accomplished it. It helps us as writers to read this way.

Patti, yes, I like your analogy of swimming in deep waters, letting the reader feel the feather touch of something unspoken.

Wish we could all meet at Starbucks - I so love these conversations.

Unknown said...

And we have some winners of Friday's sneaky contest! If you signed up to follow the blog on Friday - write to us at and we will get your snail mail address and send you a copy of Patti Hill's newest, Seeing Things!

Katy McKenna said...

Wonderful post, Bonnie, and terrific comments, too. Really helped me understand how I read and therefore how I want to write. I guess I'm bored to tears when reading any novel not well subtexted. But sometimes, when I'm attempting subtexting myself, a test reader might say, "If you've got something to say, just SAY it! Why are you beating around the bush?" So, successfully writing this way is still something that's elusive for me, but I won't be happy writing anything less.

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

That would be so fun! I love talking with people who love to talk about books!

I'm starting a new story right now and all I can think about is how to add subtext into it when other crucial elements are needed first. My mind is racing! So fun!

Nikole Hahn said...

Subtext is something I never thought about, but often use (without having a name for what I was doing). Currently, I am using subtext in my books. It slows me down a little because I am using each word I write intentionally.

David Murdoch said...

I feel lthat the christian element of christian fiction doesn't need to be subtle in order for it to be good. It may need this, perhaps in order to avoid being disliked by those who do not want to read something they find 'preachy', but in order to be good fiction it doesn't have to be subtle. It may be subtle, but it doesn't have to be. And if it is subtle, it ought to be in such a way that the christian theme is going to be lost or missed by the audience.

God Bless,

Patti Hill said...

Katy M: That's the thing about subtext- it's not that you don't say what needs to be said to tell the story. It's more about bringing in depth of feeling, emotion, and the over arching metaphor of the story in a way that the reader "feels" more than reads. But of course, not sacrificing clarity and story. Well brought up, thank you for that!

Nikole:That slow, purposeful writing is winning writing. It can be difficult to get it right, but when it happens, it's magic inside the ordinary.

David: No, Christian themes don't need to be relegated to sub-text only. I think we can all agree to that. But sub-text can be an effective way to help pin the reader's heart, and keep him thinking about those Christian themes long after the book is finished- even if the book has overt Christian messages. Thanks for chiming in!

Samantha Bennett said...

I have learned SO much from reading this post and the comments! Now, I am playing with subtext in my WIP; I love how this blog challenges writers!

Anonymous said...

Great topic, Bonnie. As I've stated before, Write Away by Elizabeth George is one of my favorite books on writing. She defines subtext as "what the characters are really talking about beneath what they appear to be talking about ... It comes from a writer's acute knowledge of who her characters are and what their individual issues are ... Subtext colors the scene at the same time as it grounds it in reality. [subtext] is what's really going on both inside and between two individuals." Very well said, I think. I've enjoyed the discussion very much.

Steve G said...

Frank Peretti's first book This Present Darkness spoke deeply to me about prayer. It wasn't the focus, though it did come up. It wasn't preached, but shown quite effectively for me at least. In that book the Christian faith was not subtle or in the background, but some of the truths of it were.
It is a very hard thing to write in and Sometimes it is what goes in after the major drafts are done (so the story is solid), like the polish of a car. It's washed and looks clean, but then the hard work of polishing happens where you don't see much difference, except for when it rains or the sun glints off the shiny paint.

word verification: outme - Yoda's lament about hitting a flyball.

Anonymous said...

Ok, I'm late to the party, and this is not a Christian book, but the first author that pops in my head when talking about subtext is Jhumpa Lahiri.

Read the first (& title) story from her collection "Unaccustomed Earth," and you'll know what I mean. It's like the soil Ruma's father works with: the story Lahiri writes is fertile and beautiful because you find more and more the deeper you dig.