I’m going to talk about subtext in stories today and will have a giveaway to tell you about later.
I first started thinking about subtext when I was critiquing a friend’s manuscript. She asked me to take a look at her final manuscript. Although an incredibly hardworking woman, this particular writer was one of the most negative people I had ever met. As I started reading her manuscript—a supposedly light-hearted short contemporary romance—something felt “off” about the story. Why did I keep putting down the manuscript with a sense of nausea in my stomach? About halfway through the story it hit me. Her negativity was coming through the pages. Not in the story, itself, but in the subtext. As I read page after page I kept getting a sense that the heroine would never find happiness no matter how the writer wrote the ending. That manuscript never sold.
Fast forward several years after the above incident. Another friend. Another manuscript. Another problem with subtext. Again, I was reading a manuscript that left me feeling…ick. Again, I couldn’t put my finger on the problem. All I knew was that this friend was in the middle of a nasty divorce. Her anger and misery were coming out on the pages, even though her characters were neither angry nor miserable. In fact, her characters were noble with equally noble goals, motivation and conflict. They should have been sympathetic. They weren’t.
Knowing the problem had to be somewhere on the page, I plucked my favorite highlighter from my desk and quickly highlighted her verbs and nouns. Aha! I discovered the problem. There was nothing wrong with her writing. The problem was in her word choice. She chose hard, hateful, over-the-top nouns and verbs to evoke emotions that weren’t anywhere near that dramatic. To show frustration, she was using venomous verbs that indicated hatred. To show impatience, she chose hard-sounding, angry verbs. To show confusion, she chose words that evoked bitterness.
Movies have subtext, too, especially the better movies. Here’s a fun game/exercise for you to try. Watch a scene of a movie with the sound off. Write down all the emotions and/or moods you think you’re seeing in that scene. What does the body language say? What mood are you picking up on? What emotions are you seeing portrayed? Now, review that scene again, only this time with the sound on. Do your original impressions match up with what you saw when the sound was off? Did you catch things when the sound was off that you might have missed when it was on?
Two movies that handle subtext with expert precision are Atonement (the scene at the fountain, particularly) and The Man in the Iron Mask (especially the scene after the Musketeers have rescued the king’s twin brother from prison). Watch either movie and see what I mean. If you’re a writer, you’ll be inspired. If you’re a reader, you’ll have a better insight into why a well-told story is so well-told.
Now, about the giveaway.
Leave a comment and you’ll be included in a drawing for my current release, THE OUTLAW’S REDEMPTION. One lucky winner will receive all six books in my Charity House series.