Subtext: Microscope

Posted Apr 20 2018, 11:45 am

We’ve discussed the big picture for subtext. Now let’s shift the focus!

A microscope is a tool that lets the viewer see, in great detail, things that are too small to be apparent to the naked eye. Similarly, micro subtexts are the tiny “tells” that subtly cue the reader to understand the things that aren’t stated directly in the text — things that even the characters themselves may not yet be aware of.

As I mentioned in the previous article, Erica Vetsch describes micro and macro subtext in a post for Seekerville (thanks, Karen!), and her post is well worth reading in its entirety. Vetsch identifies micro subtext as the subtle, unspoken things that happen within scenes:

  • I know something they don’t know: The reader is privy to knowledge that some or all of the characters don’t have, and therefore interprets their actions in light of this secret knowledge. Think of stories where:
    • One character is hiding something from another: The reader knows one character’s feelings toward another character, even if the second character has no idea. This can be amusing (think of someone with a crush who can’t bear to let the object of adoration know) or chilling (“The Cask of Amontillado,” http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/poe/cask.html by Edgar Allan Poe, hinges on Montresor’s deception of Fortunato; the reader is fully aware of how Montresor really feels.)
    • A character is hiding something from him or herself:​ In this case, the author gives the reader enough subtle cues that even if a character is in denial about his or her feelings, the reader can figure it out. (Vetsch recommends the book Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters, and I enthusiastically second it. Read it twice to see how Peters layers in subtext for the building relationship between her two main characters!) 
  • They know something I don’t know: This is the inversion, in which a character has a secret that the author doesn’t reveal to the reader… yet. But the reader knows something is there because the author gives important clues in how that character reacts to things around them. I see this frequently in romance as a way to slowly reveal backstory in the same way it would work for the character’s love interest. The reader is (hopefully) intrigued by the hints and trying to put them together, just as the new love interest is.

In all cases, though, subtext is indirect, not direct — as Beth Hill states on The Editor’s Blog, it’s “what your characters are saying without words.”  Does that sound familiar? Yep, it’s that ol’ maxim show, don’t tell: the author shows the reader glimpses of things that the characters can’t, or won’t, state directly. 

Sharon Bala gives an excellent example of developing this kind of subtext in her blog post, “Toast Is Never Toast.” According to Bala, what characters are doing in the scene is as important as what they’re saying, and their “stage business” layers subtext into the scene.

Remember to keep a careful balance between text and subtext. If a writer layers too much subtext into a scene without actual text to anchor it, the reader begins to wonder why people are arranging matches for no reason. It feels like the actions should be important, but there’s not enough information to figure out why. 

One way to examine subtext in your scene is to write down only the dialogue in a separate file. What are the characters actually saying? Then consider: What do they want to say? What are they trying desperately not to say? And how would that show in what they’re doing?

Play around with subtext and have fun! (And enjoy Kate Beaton’s subtexty set of pirate cartoons!)

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