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Monday, October 20, 2014

The Secrets of Subtext

Fiction is like an iceberg. Only twenty-five percent of it is visible (the words on the page). The other seventy-five percent is known as subtext. It’s the part that is tricky to convey, but when you do it right, it makes for a compelling story.

A few years ago, I had an issue with my van doors that turned out to be a design flaw that affected many of the manufacturer’s vehicles. The man at the dealership didn’t tell me he was nervous when I calmly asked if they had inspected the doors during my many service appointments, given the manufacturer knew about the issues. (I had to keep asking the question because he kept giving me a non-answer). His body language told me was nervous. I interpreted what he didn’t say and how he reacted to mean that they had neglected to examine the doors.

But maybe I was wrong. Maybe he kept shifting on his feet because his bladder was about to explode due to a super large latte he’d recently consumed. Maybe he was frequently looking at his coworkers, who were busy staring at their computer screens and pretending I wasn’t there, because he hoped someone would relieve so he could go to the bathroom.

Okay, I didn’t believe that either, but it does show you how things might not always be as they seem. That’s the beauty of subtext. It can add an element of suspense. You can have your character screw up by thinking the subtext means something else and misdirect your reader. But make sure it’s believable. If your reader can guess the truth behind the subtext, your misdirection will come off as contrived and your character will sound like an idiot.

It isn’t always necessary to spell out the subtext for your readers. Often it’s more satisfying if you let them figure it out themselves. That’s the beauty of fiction. It exercises our brains. However, if the subtext is confusing and will frustrate the reader, then definitely have a character spell it out.

One thing to avoid is the mistake director Catherine Hardwicke made in Twilight and Red Riding Hood. In Twilight, she wanted to show Edward’s eyes, which changed color depending on when he last ate blood. In Red Riding Hood, she wanted to show that the werewolf had human eyes. Fair enough. But in both movies, the close-up shots of the eyes filled the screen, and the camera stayed zoomed on them for longer than necessary. In Red Riding Hood, Catherine then focused on everyone’s eyes so we could examine them (not necessary, if you ask me). Except, I doubt Amanda Seyfried (Red Riding Hood) was leaning that close to the individuals, and for that long, to check out their eyes. At one point, my eleven-year-old said in an exasperated tone, “Yeah, yeah, we get it.”

Lesson: don’t underestimate your readers’ intelligence. They won’t appreciate it.

Do you use subtext to misguide your readers?

Stina Lindenblatt @StinaLL writes New Adult novels. In her spare time, she’s a photographer and can be found at her blog/website.  She is represented by Marisa Corvisiero, and finds it weird talking about herself in third person. Her debut New Adult contemporary romance TELL ME WHEN and LET ME KNOW (Carina Press, HQN) are now available.

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