Friday, April 01, 2011

The Secret of Subtext

"What is subtext?" novice writers will ask in workshops and critique groups. "I've heard that I need to include more of it in my work, but nobody can tell me what it is."

That's because subtext is what's unsaid. It's all the words that should be there, but aren't. It's hidden meaning and missing facts. Subtext is shrouded in silence.

Subtext makes the reader see MORE than what's there.
I've always considered subtext as the "lost" information in a scene.

Without the information, the characters in the scene interact on one level.

But with the information, the reader puts on the equivalent of literary 3-D glasses and the scene POPS. Subtext creates undercurrents of tension. It's the plot's negative space. It's the underlying thing that makes the whole scene stick.

No wonder it's so misunderstood. It's the thing that exists only when it's not there.

I recently saw a perfect real-life example of subtext.  Sometimes, to understand a thing,  it's better to experience it than to explain it. So, without further ado, I present:


Setting: A Daytime Talk-Show

     *  Ditzy Airhead Hostess (DAH)
     *  Super-Hot Actor Guy (SHAG)
     *  Normal Ordinary Regular Male actor (NORM)


DAH: I'm here with Shag and Norm, and Shag, I have to tell you, you are even more gorgeous in person than on screen. Isn't he, ladies? I mean, just look at you!

Appreciative "WHOOOoo's" from audience. SHAG smiles graciously.

SHAG: Uh. Thank you.

DAH: Now the two of you, together, you have such great chemistry. It's like a bromance. You just click, you know?

SHAG: We have a great cast. I've been a fan of Norm's work for a long time.  Flashes a million-watt grin.

NORM: We're very lucky that our styles work well together.

DAH: They certainly do! You two really seem to get along. Do you hang out with each other after shooting? You know, go out for drinks or dinner when you're not working?

SHAG: Well, we work together 70 hours a week. There isn't a lot of time left over for socializing.

DAH: That's right. That's right! Oh, and Norm, you have a family! That kind of work schedule is tough with what: two kids?

NORM: (nods) Two kids. So it's hard, you know. I'm working so many hours during the week. But I try to be there for their soccer games. And recitals. I don't get to see my wife as much as I would like. That's the tough part of the job. I do the best I can to make the time to be with them.

DAH: It's tough. I understand. So, Shag. I bet the women are all over you. You hear the screaming in our audience. You never worry about going out alone or needing a date, do you?

SHAG: The fans are awesome. They're so enthusiastic. But we work all day most days. Usually, if we're awake, we're working.

DAH: Well, whatever you're doing, it's working! Isn't it ladies?

More appreciative "WHOOOoo's" from audience. SHAG flashes another aw-shucks smile. NORM just shakes his head and laughs, knowing the screams aren't for him.

DAH: Shag and Norm, thank you so much for visiting. Shag and Norm from "That Hit Show," everyone!

SHAG: Thank you.

NORM: Thanks for having us.



That's a fairly accurate transcript of what happened. There's plenty of dramatic tension on the surface just from the situation, the inanity of the host, and the built-in discomfort that arises from seeing human beings put on display while vocalized ogling is encouraged.

But where's the subtext?

Ah. I'm glad you asked. It is this:  "Shag" is gay. He's in a long-term committed relationship. He and his partner have kids. It's common knowledge in the industry. Even his IMDb listing is up-front about his orientation.

See how that changes things?

Your personal thoughts about gay rights or gay marriage don't matter. What matters is how one extra unsaid fact colors the entire interview. Those changes - those colors - are subtext.

I watched the piece while holding that one additional pixel of information and it changed the entire flavor of the interview.

On the surface, the Hostess' drivel appeared vacuous. But the subtext made her seem venomous.

On the surface, Shag listened attentively as Norm talked with obvious pride about his kids. As a testament to his acting skills, not a single shadow of doubt or sadness crossed his face to dim his smile. The added subtext, however, made the situation heartbreaking.

Subtext also increased the dramatic tension with unanswered questions: Should he mention his kids? Would that kill his career? Would it kill the show? Did the Hostess know his situation? Was she trying to goad him into spilling about his personal life? Or was she really as stupid as she appeared?

And that, my friends is the secret of subtext.  Arm a character or two with more information than the rest of the cast, let the reader in on it, and turn them loose on a scene. Then put on your 3-D specs and watch the drama unfold.


Unknown said...

Great example! :) This is truly something difficult to explain, but you made it much easier - I can just forward people to you henceforth. ;)

Ami Hendrickson said...

Thanks, Malin.
Glad you found it helpful. Wish I could invent a pair of "Subtext Specs" to include w/ everything I write. The reader could just put them on and new layers and depth within the work would magically appear. *sigh*

@TheGirlPie said...

Nice example with a lovely illustration from you on the ghost that is subtext. But as well as that scene identifies a fact of subtext that you knew, it is after the fact (since the "script" was improvised rather than written.)

The trick for the writer is in how to lay the facts info into the script so the actors are able to "be" the subtext. I think of subtext as "what isn't being said" and find it vital to weave the set-up in delicately. (Too many never-shot-a-script gatekeepers presume that only action and dialogue may be written into the script. I've heard dopes complain: "you can't write that she blushes" as if any decent actress can't think of what she needs to in order to blush on cue. If it's important, put it in.]

If your example was a script, the writer might foreshadow that gay/partner/parent info into the action earlier in passing for background tension; or set it up just before or during the scene for heightened tension in an action line about The Host (like: "Clueless that he's a gay parent, she..."), or, for a different reaction, saved it for the end of the scene to jolt the reader -- with the same timing in which you sprung the new info on us.

Of course, the actors will have read it prior, but when the buyer reads it cold, like we have here, just a line like: "Norm glances at Shag, embarrassed that she didn't know about Shag's children with his gay partner." But better, obviously -- you guys are the writers.

The "Subtext Specs" you mention are the POV-glasses of the character. When the writer asks herself, in character, "what am I trying to keep secret, to withhold?" she'll start getting at the subtext of that moment.

Thanks for a post I too can send people to for a clarification starter ~!

Keep up the good works,


Jami Gold said...

I *love* subtext. Maybe a bit too much. :) My readers don't catch half the stuff going on under the surface. So I always struggle with where and how much subtext to use while still making sure it's not confusing or that important things aren't left unsaid.

Thanks for the great article!

Ami Hendrickson said...

Thanks for the comments, kind words, & additional observations.

I love playing the "What Am I Trying To Keep Secret?" game. Another favorite is "How Much Can I Convey Without Saying It Out Loud?"

Here's to writing great reads, Subtext Specs, and the games we play!

Anonymous said...

This is a great example, but mainly I just really, really want to know who SHAG and NORM are in real life.

Ami Hendrickson said...

I'll never tell. But I might send a link... ;)