On Subtext: Concealed Language   2 comments

Subtext: An Over Generalization

            I have been studying the use of subtext in dialogue for some time now.  This is an art form of which likely nobody will ever claim complete mastery, however many have worked diligently at perfecting the way they apply it to their own writing.  Subtext has been described as ‘saying something without actually saying it,’ and is considered the opposite to ‘on-the-nose’ dialogue where characters say exactly what they are thinking (or where the narrative voice does it for them).

            Real people, in real conversations, seldom speak without using subtext, particularly when the subject is contentious.

            The husband, strolling the aisles with the wife, cast his eye across a counter laden with unfamiliar fruits and vegetables, all with foreign sounding names and inscrutable purposes.  “I wish you were more willing to try different things,” he said.

            She glowered back at him.  “I don’t need anything new,” she replied, speaking through clenched teeth. “What I know is good enough for me.”  He looked away so she wouldn’t see his frustrated scowl.

What kind of vegetables were they discussing?  Maybe… passion fruit?

            Subtext takes advantage of things the reader will know, or should. In the example above, the reader who understands (and has likely experienced) a common source of tension within couples will ‘get it,’ possibly others will not.  In some cases, readers may be intentionally denied access to the true meaning (e.g.; youthful readers who attempt an adult-themed work).  The words can be taken at face value and interpreted as ‘on-the-nose,’ suggesting that the wife is irritated by criticism of her culinary skills.  Or the husband’s plea can be understood to mean something quite different.

       As one writer, pontificating on the subject, observed (I apologize for not recalling who):  “Spray it, don’t say it!”

      It is not just a matter of using subtle or nuanced words, or even double entendre.  Instead, it is using something that may even seem superficial, as a proxy for something that may even be the polar opposite if what is being said, by inviting the reader to interpret the words in the context of the unsaid.

       By placing dialogue against the backdrop of knowledge, the author invites the reader to become a collaborator, and utilizes the reader’s knowledge to flesh out the scene without the need to add words.  Subtextual dialogue, taken out of context, will seldom make sense; however when it is understood within the proper framework, it can be loaded with far more meaning than that carried by the mere words themselves.

      Subtext is not metaphor, although they may be used together.  Metaphor draws comparisons which make clear a single point, subtext is woven into the thread of the work and builds on what has gone before.  Subtext is never spoken; it is merely implied.

      While my reading on the subject of subtext is not exhaustive, I have not come across a distinction between External Subtext and Internal Subtext.  I think this is an important difference, and offer up my paltry suggestions on what it means.

External Subtext

            To the modern reader, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels seems a quaint tale involving wars fought over trivial issues.  That is, unless that reader has a comprehensive knowledge of English history, or else reads an annotated version, in which case the fierce politico-religious satire springs to life.  Simply put, lacking specialized knowledge, today’s reader is ill-equipped to properly understand Swift’s parody: The context is not supplied by the text.  In similar manner, placing a cell phone in the hands of Holden Caulfield or Jay Gatsby would be laughable, lacking contemporaneous context.

            The author who depends too much on the ephemera of the day risks having his or her work marginalized by the passage of time.  Conversely, the author who eschews the use of contemporary clues is likely to produce a sterile work that the reader has a hard time relating to.  Finding the right balance is difficult, particularly if the objective is to produce ageless literary work.

            The use of human emotion as a stage for subtext is one way to achieve that balance.  Shakespeare understood it clearly, and wielded it like a rapier.

Was ever woman in this humour woo’d?

Was ever woman in this humour won?

I’ll have her; but I’ll not keep her long.

What? I that killed her husband and his father,

To take her in her heart’s extremest hate,

 

         When the future Richard III utters these words, the author is relying on the viewer’s sympathetic understanding of the depth of Lady Anne’s feelings to make clear the extent of Gloucester’s treachery (Richard III, Act 1, Scene 2).  Were this scene to be recast in modern times, the effect would be unchanged; the future king’s perfidy would still be palpable.

            Reliance on moral standards of the day can be effective, but changing mores can make it hazardous.  A story set in the sex and drug fueled sixties may appear offensive to today’s reader, particularly a younger or more conservative reader who perhaps ‘never inhaled’ and does not consider that to have been a nostalgic era.  Being offensive is not necessarily a bad thing, but if it gets in the way of the story then maybe it should be rethought.

Internal Subtext

      External Subtext relies on things that the reader brings to the table; its Internal counterpart relies on things the author has brought along.

      As critical as are the opening lines of any work – they are the ones that determine whether the reader will continue reading, or instead toss the work aside – they are also the only lines that are forced to be self-reliant, unable to defend themselves by exploiting the understanding the reader has already come to hold regarding that work.

      The first words spoken to Sally by Bill cannot depend on words that have previously passed between them, but every exchange ‘downstream’ from that point has the capacity to build on that halting first dialogue.  In that way, the reader is asked to follow the deepening relationship, however it develops (or doesn’t).  In similar manner, reliance on earlier plot twists, setting descriptions, time cues, and all the other tools of writerly craft will build on the reader-author bond and permit faster paced storytelling that doesn’t force the reader to re-read things already said.

      My premise here is this:  by the time a story is nearing conclusion, virtually every element should lean heavily on internal subtext, regardless of how reliant it may also be on external subtext.  This may frustrate the hapless reader who insists on reading the last pages first, but novels are not written for such wretches – they are best left in the dark.  Novels are written instead for those who read as the author wrote, and they are the ones who will ‘get’ the internal subtext, simply because they have already lived it. 

      This not to say that backstory cannot be discussed, or that a tale must be told in a linear manner.  The careful author will not hesitate to use such techniques, but will somehow signal to the reader that a transition is about to take place.

      For more on the use of subtext, I can suggest The Art Of Subtext: Beyond Plot, by Charles Baxter.  The author uses the tools of psychological analysis to unpack the topic, and includes many examples.

Posted June 22, 2011 by JD Rule

2 responses to On Subtext: Concealed Language

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  1. That was an insightful discussion, John. The illustrative quotations were especially effective.

    Without intending to contradict your thesis in the least, I would offer the caveat that some (many?) readers approach a book with a bias shaded towards literalism. Readers of the early chapters of the first draft of my novel surprised me when they reported they found the title character to be loathsome. This was hardly my intent. While he had promptly done some dramatic, shocking, desperate, and yes, hurtful acts, the clues were there to suggest that he was stepping out, or more accurately was being pushed out, of character. All of these clues were minimized by the “grand jury” ready to indict solely upon the prima facie evidence. My response was to let the prejudices stand, for I was pleased how, one by one, the same readers dramatically changed their opinion as the character migrated towards menschhood in later chapters.

    The question for you is: How important is a “safety net” in the event the subtext is too subtle for some (many) readers? That begs the question: Do we write for our meaning to be clear to plus and minus one (or two?) standard deviations of a bell curve of readers, or are certain meanings to be left, like hidden gold nuggets, to be uncovered by only a handful of especially insightful readers?

  2. Rich: Is a ‘Safety Net’ similar to an ‘Explained Joke?’ How much subtlety is too much?

    Here’s how I see it: It all depends on who the target audience is. If you are writing for an adult reader and a YA ‘doesn’t get it,’ perhaps they were not supposed to get it.

    Once a work finds its way into a reader’s hands, the author no longer owns the story – the reader does. The reader I want to please is one who will understand that all will be explained in due course, but only if they are an active part of that process. They will have to work at it.

    What I try to do is provide tidbits early on, then build on those as the story unfolds. In that manner, according to me, the subtext is partly based on what went before, and the reader will be waiting for the next little factoid to fill in that particular part of the puzzle. Of course, if those do not appear, then the earlier morsel will be merely a Chekhov’s Gun. This can apply to subplot equally well as to the main story line.

    I do not intend my work to be accessible by all. There are some who will never ‘get it,’ and they have many other authors to choose from.

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