Subtext: Building Macros

Posted Apr 8 2018, 6:32 pm

Every year, when I teach literature to my students, I encounter three types:

  • The students who have been to this rodeo before. They know about symbolism and extended metaphor. They’re ready to explore further. “Sure, the rose is symbolic of her love for him, but by invoking the Blake poem, the author is also calling into question the nature of love…”
  • The students who, for whatever reason, suddenly wake up to the idea that a story can convey more than what’s literally on the page. These students are purely delightful to teach, as I get to watch their minds open right in front of me. “Oh my gosh! Like, on this page he said his love blooms for her a rose but two pages later the gardener points out how quickly roses wilt and fade! IT’S ALL CONNECTED!”
  • The students who cannot, or will not, see that there is anything more to a story than the words on the page. “It’s just a rose. He gave her a flower. It doesn’t mean anything.”

The last group often misses out on half of the story, because they’re also unable to see subtext.

If text is the words on the page, subtext is the information that is part of the story, but is not on the page. It exists only as inference — what we, as readers, infer from clues from the writer.

As Erica Vetsch describes it in a post for Seekerville  (thanks, Karen!), subtext has two types: macro and micro. (Her post is well worth reading in its entirety!) Vetsch points out that macro subtext relates to larger literary elements, like setting, which give readers information that helps them better interpret the story.

One visual example is the proposal scene from the 2005 film of Pride & Prejudice.  Elizabeth is furious that Darcy turned Bingley away from her sister. Darcy is proposing to Elizabeth even though he says he knows the match is a poor one (“I have fought against my better judgment…” ouch.). In the book, this scene is indoors, but the filmmakers moved it outside in a storm, giving viewers a clear subtext: This conversation is going to be loud and emotional and it won’t end well!

What I want to do in this post is to show you how macro subtext can be used to build information into a story. So here’s a short literature lesson: go read Kate Chopin’s classic short story, “The Story of an Hour.” It’s not a romance, but it is very short, and it’s a perfect example of subtext in action.

=-=-=-=-=SPOILERS AHOY=-=-=-=-=

Macro Subtext: About the Weather

When Mrs. Mallard goes upstairs to her room after hearing the news of her husband’s death, she looks out the window:

She could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life. The delicious breath of rain was in the air. In the street below a peddler was crying his wares. The notes of a distant song which some one was singing reached her faintly, and countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves.

There were patches of blue sky showing here and there through the clouds that had met and piled one above the other in the west facing her window. (Chopin, paragraphs 5-6)

The reader at this point doesn’t know Mrs. Mallard’s eventual realization, but the text is hinting at it. It’s been raining (and she has just been crying), but the storm is dissipating (as her tears have). Through her window, she sees “new spring life” and “patches of blue sky.” She hears the “notes of a distant song” and “countless sparrows . . . twittering.” 

These aren’t images of despair or foreboding. They’re images of hope and new life! The subtext for the reader is that Mr. Mallard’s death isn’t, perhaps, an end to Mrs. Mallard’s life, but a beginning — something she herself doesn’t yet recognize. 

Macro Subtext: Hooked on a Feeling

Sure enough, Chopin is about to reveal Mrs. Mallard’s surprising reaction to the death of her husband: She will now be free, a realization Mrs. Mallard experiences physically as well as emotionally:  

Now her bosom rose and fell tumultuously. . . . When she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. . . . Her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body. (Chopin, paragraph 10)

That sensual experience is subtext, too. Though the narrator is careful to point out that Mr. Mallard was kind and tender and had looked at Mrs. M with love, the reader can easily infer that Mrs. M had never experienced sexual satisfaction with him, because the description here plays out as though she’s experiencing an orgasm for the first time!

(Notably, it’s only once she’s had this realization that we find out her first name, Louise — up until this point, she’s “Mrs. Mallard.” That’s subtext, too.)


Putting Macro Subtext to Work

So how can we use macro subtext in our writing?

The first step is to be aware of the larger picture you want to convey. What’s the larger theme of your writing? Sure, as romance writers, we’re all focused on love — but what does your particular story say about love? That’s your theme, and playing with theme is a great way to layer in subtext.

For example, in one of my stories, the theme is about love bridging different worlds. The characters are from very different backgrounds: she’s a mom and freelancer, and he’s a movie star. That collision of expectations and understandings plays out in the setting: the heroine’s childhood home has become part of a film backlot. At every turn, her world (focused on her home and children) bumps up against his world (making movies).

Obviously, this situation is part of the conflict for the plot — but it also allows me to layer in subtext. (For example, the trailers scattered across her yard are overwhelming, but also impermanent — and she fears any relationship with him would be the same way.)

The best subtext will grow organically from your story. Use your theme and the world your characters live in to comment on who they are and how their relationships work.



2 responses to “Subtext: Building Macros”

  1. Cherry Phyllis says:

    Thanks again for another article.

  2. Connie Taxdal says:

    Another great article. Thanks, Darice!

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