On Subtext

Dear blog, so much has been happening -- I moved apartments! I have much work to do! I need to buy a sofa! And a dining room set! I'm going to a conference and on vacation! But I must finish the work first! -- that you are being sadly neglected. (Happy belated blogiversary, by the way.) Here is a quick substantive post stolen from the discussion board on my recent Plot Master Class to make up for what will probably be a continuing silence for a bit.


Q. I'm into my week 8 analysis assignment and am very intrigued by the question  "What is the emotional or philosophical subtext to this conversation?" I'd never before considered that I should have a subtext to my scene, and yet, when prompted to think about it, I realized I do have one (at least I have one in the scene I chose to analyze). Cheryl, would you mind expanding on concept of subtexts, perhaps even share a Rule of Thumb or two? For example, should an author consciously create the subtext? How should the subtext of various scenes relate to each other? How should the subtext relate to the plot? Will every scene have one? (And if it doesn't have one, is that yet another sign that maybe the scene needs to go?) 

A. Interesting question! To start with the simplest question first:  I don't think every scene needs to have a subtext, or that the lack of one dictates the scene's deletion. As Freud is said to have said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar :-) , and sometimes one character is just asking another to stop by the store and pick up some milk (say), with no real implications beyond breakfast the next day.

On the other hand, the presence of subtext is a great indication of the depth and complexity of a character or a relationship. Suppose Characters A & B live together in a romantic relationship, and Character A chooses not to have a job and is terrible with money while Character B is a hard worker and responsible saver. If Character A then asks B to buy milk, B might suspect that A is asking because A has no cash on hand of her own. And if money has been a source of tension between them in the past, then there could be a great subtext to the scene involving power (B has it, A doesn't), love (would B be irritated? Or happy to provide? Maybe it would depend on how long they've been together), fear (does A feel OK asking, or does A herself worry that B will resent it?), and all the other dynamics that can play out in a relationship.

The subtext would relate to the plot insofar as A & B's relationship would be part of the plot or form its own plot . . . Maybe A makes these kind of requests of B all the time and never reciprocates, and it's slowly draining him of money and filling him with secret resentment. If so, then even if nothing is said explicitly about anything other than milk within this scene, the subtext of it could drive a climax to their relationship plot in the book -- a point at which things change irrevocably:  In the next scene, he could break up with A, or decide to change his own communication patterns and tell her how she feels rather than being happy-smiley about it, or lay down an ultimatum that A must get a job.

So I think authors can best create subtext by creating complicated characters; staying aware of all of their complexities as they write; and then revising individual scenes to bring in more of those complexities / dimensions consciously, if they didn't come out in the scene the first time around. Maybe you have a scene that feels like a just-a-cigar scene, but when you look at it again, you realize that you could use it to highlight Character C's underlying defiant attitude when dealing with people in official situations, which will show up again later in a crucial Escalating and Complicating Event. . . . This is all rather Advanced Authoring stuff, once you have the basic dynamics of everything down. And so there's not really a Rule of Thumb to it, other than, as always, the more real your people can be, the richer everything else in the novel can be as well.

Books that have good subtext, off the top of my head:  Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein; the Attolia books by Megan Whalen Turner; Above by Leah Bobet; Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (forthcoming in March from St. Martin's -- a really wonderful and complicated romance with really wonderful and complicated characters, whose last line and ultimate ending turns entirely on how you read the subtext of everything that preceded it); the spy novels by John LeCarre that I've read, which are so dense with subtext I've sometimes found them impossible to parse.