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!