Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Showing vs. Telling: Subtexting

In Bonnie's fabulous post on Showing vs. Telling, she mentioned two major components - POV and subtext. I thought that today we would dig further into subtext.

Subtext is elusive and often revealed by dialogue. Randy Ingermanson (the Snowflake Guy) summed it up on his website, Advanced Fiction Writing. You can check it out here.

'Roughly speaking
, subtexting refers to the art of putting a whole different layer of meaning under the surface, so that the dialogue is not really about what the dialogue appears to be about.'

Subtext can be implied or it can deliberately disguise. Some authors use it to state a belief, further a cause or even hint at a relationship that may offend the sensibilities of some readers. In any case, a good writer utilizes subtext rather than writing 'on the nose'. 'On the nose' dialogue states what the author wants to say in no uncertain terms and sounds unnatural and contrived. In normal conversation, people often don't say what they really mean. If April is asked if she's upset that her boyfriend broke up with her, she may reply that he was a loser anyway and by-the-way, she's having the stupid tattoo they got together removed from her...shoulder. Her friends will give each other knowing looks behind her back, and although she never admitted to being hurt, they know she is.

Subtext can be witty. Think of Nick and Nora Charles of the Thin Man (am I dating myself?). Seriously, you should rent a few of the Thin Man movies if you haven't seen them already. Their relationship always simmers just below the surface and often complicates whatever murder they are investigating.

Nick and Nora's subtext may be easy to spot, but in most cases, the writer has to trust that his readers 'get it.' Subtlety is the signature trait of subtext. By nature, it is elusive and felt more than seen. And it makes for a much better story. Without it, the story will seem contrived and moralistic.

What stories can you think of that do this well? We'd love to hear from you!


Wendy Paine Miller said...

Wally Lamb does this well in his novels. Learned a new term--on the nose. Thanks!
~ Wendy

Anonymous said...

I think a good example of that is in your book, Raising Rain, Debbie. When Rain and her boyfriend Hayden are breaking up, he comes to her home to pick up clothes and CDs. The entire conversation-- on the surface, about the cat, the mango air freshner, Rain's ailing mother and her friends, a sunburn-- is about the fact that they shared their lives previously on another level that wasn't just news updates. Then when Rain asks about a scrape on his hand, he covers it and says, "It's nothing. I was. . .just helping out a friend." That means he has moved on -- something she believes she has accepted, but when she sees her skis hanging on a wall and a blank place where his once were, she shuts the door to that room.

What a great understated subtext.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Wendy, truthfully, it was a new term for me, too! It says what it means, doesn't it?

Latayne, I'm glad that came through. Which brings up another question - does subtext just happen or do you plot it?

Laura S. said...

Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" immediately comes to mind.

I haven't written subtext in my stories. It sounds challenging! I think I'll have to give it a try and see what comes out of it. :)

Anonymous said...

Debbie, after brilliant posts by you and Bonnie, I don't know if other authors plotted their subtext. Did you? Did Bonnie?

I know that I'm going back through my WIP and looking for that. I tend to use a sledgehammer rather than a tack hammer in dialogue, so I'm sure I could use some subtlety. Thanks!

Bonnie Grove said...

One of my favorite short fictions ever is The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (read it here:http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/history/lavender/wallpaper.html)
It is so filled with amazing use of literary devices, but the skill - oh that I could wield my pen with half the grace of Ms. Gilman.
Anyway, the subtext IS the story - have a read and see if you're not inspired as well.

Jan Cline said...

I immediately thought of the movie Jane Eyre with Orson Wells. When he talks to Jane he always has an underlying message in what he is saying. Ultimately we see his meaning when he suddenly asks her to marry him. It always fascinates me and Ive probably seen it a dozen times.

Nicole said...

In a different arena, the writers for Donald Bellisario in his multiple series (Magnum PI, JAG, NCIS) use subtext in dialogue frequently--especially in their UST moments.

Samantha Bennett said...

It's so funny you used the term "on the nose." A new member of our critique group used that at our last meeting. She marked up my manuscript quite a bit, nudging me toward the more subtle options. Great post!

Lori Benton said...

"does subtext just happen or do you plot it?"

Debbie, I'm not sure I've ever plotted it, but I try to keep an eye out for it and if a hint of it crops up in a scene then I try to make the most of it. I would like to be more deliberate about it and more liberal with it. I so enjoy picking up on that kind of thing in other writers' fiction.

Lori Benton said...


I'm a JAG fan, and totally agree. Good example. :)

But what's a UST moment? Methinks I should know but I'm coming up blank.

CA Heaven said...

Interesting post >:)

Dostoyevsky was a master of subtexting, I think.

Cold As Heaven