Thursday, April 27, 2006

Subtext

One of the comments brought up when we workshopped my story yesterday was the value of subtext in dialogue. Dialogue's great to use, it really moves stories along and gives you a flavor of the person, but it can be constructed in such a way as to reveal even more about the person. As a crude example, I would have had the mean kids say to the main character's friend, "Why are you hanging out with this trash? You're better than him." A more effective line would be to have them say, "Hey, Jeff, wanna go to the park?" (or something similar). There's subtext there: the main character is being deliberately excluded, and the reasons are left to the reader's imagination. It feels more authentic.

This was a function (I think) of the story being an early draft. I was mostly concerned with getting the story on the page and wasn't really inhabiting the skin of the characters. In going through the scenes, again using the above example, I just wanted to establish that the mean kids don't like the main character but that they do like (or have the potential to like) his friend, and wanted to put that in dialogue. So one major step in the rewrite is to go through carefully and think about what each character is thinking as they're talking.

What I wanted to communicate, I guess, is that you don't add subtext by saying, "Hm, how can I add some subtext to this dialogue?" You add it by understanding the character, knowing what he or she is thinking, and figuring out what he or she would realistically say in that situation. Moments of frankness do happen, but they are rare and should be focal points in the story.

2 comments:

NedSanyour said...

Good points on subtext. I do think there is a huge danger that, in reckless hands, subtext reliance leads to total mis-interpretation of the story. That happened to me with a Faulkner story in a college class on short fiction. I still recall it. It was a surprise in-class paper/exam on "The Unvanquished." We were to read the story in class and write a quick analysis. I spent 4 pages trying to explain why a girl who had spoken so praisingly to a young man who had not lied about his age to run off to war had then turned around and instead married the thug-like 'Civil War Hero' (who might have been his father, it is a little hazy...). I twisted things around to make her scared to follow her heart and all, and then the professor just wrote, "She is being sarcastic" under one of my quotes from her dialogue. The whole thing fell into place.

The point is that while it *can* be more effective, it can also be totally uniformative, and makes me feel like the author doesn't really know what anyone is thinking, or why they do anything, instead of making it feel like the author knows everything about the characters and conveying it subtly.

In your example, if there is no tiny description of body language or some sort of tip beyond just the direct address, I wouldn't necessarily get it. "Hey, Jeff, do YOU wanna go to the park with US?" Still too heavy handed?

Maybe have the mean guy come over to, say, the house where the two guys live. And the guy says to the main character, "Wanna go bowling?" and the main character says, "Sure." Then, while they are leaving, the other character sticks his head out of his door and says, "I've never been bowling." Then you could have the mean guy say, "We'll let you know how it goes." OK, too heavy-handed even for me-- and what is worse, unrealistic. Who would say that?

OK, seriously, I admire subtext when it works, when I *get* it. It does make the whole thing stronger. However, there is the risk if done not so well that it just makes characters incomprehensible. Maybe I just don't care enough about many characters to analyze them that thoroughly to myself. And also, getting the internal dialogue of at least on mind is one of the things a book can do other entertainment (movies I am thinking of primarily) can have trouble doing.
A good example of the knife edge for me is Hemingway. When it doesn't work it is a dully written self parody. When it does, it is like a gemstone, dazzling from every angle you turn it to.

Tim said...

I agree, that bowling example is totally unrealistic. I mean, you couldn't ever be sympathetic to the mean character after that. Or any of his friends.

Great points, and that I think is why I shy away from it a lot of the time: I'm worried about the story relying on things that the casual reader won't get. One might say, "well, we aim our stories at the more discerning reader," but one would then have to accept that one is not going to be very widely read. It is a rare writer who can craft a story that is entertaining if you don't get the subtext and meaningful if you do.