Blogger's Note: A few weeks ago, Renee Ryan and I got on the subject of subtext. The way she put it was so right on and so much better than I could recount second hand, I suggested she write an article. Guess what? She did. Please welcome the very generous and gifted Renee Ryan to the Five Scribes ~ Donnell
I first started thinking about subtext several years ago. It began when I was critiquing a friend's manuscript because she had received an extensive revision letter from an acquiring editor but no contract. My friend asked me to take a look at her final manuscript. Although an incredibly hardworking woman, this particular writer was one of the most negative people I had ever met. As I started reading her manuscript -- a supposedly light-hearted short contemporary romance -- something felt "off" about the story. I had no idea what. The writing was stellar. The plotting was airtight, the premise perfect for the targeted line. So, what was wrong? Why did I keep putting down the manuscript with a sense of nausea in my stomach? About halfway through the story it hit me at last. Her negativity was coming through on the pages. Not in the story itself, but in the subtext. As I read page after page, I kept getting a sense that the heroine would never find happiness no matter how the writer wrote the ending. That manuscript never sold. That author is still unpublished and, sadly, still one of the most negative women I know.
They say we should write what we know. I say we write who we are. A miserable person will have a miserable subtext if not checked. Conversely, a confident person will write with an unspoken confidence that shines through on the pages.
Not with me on this? Fast forward several years after the above incident. Another friend. Another manuscript. Another problem with subtext. Again, I was reading a manuscript that left me feeling -- ick. Again, I couldn't put my finger on the problem. All I knew was that this friend was in the middle of a nasty divorce. Her anger and misery were coming out on the pages, even though her characters were neither angry nor miserable. In fact, her characters were noble, with equally noble goals, motivation and conflict. They should have been sympathetic. They weren't.
Knowing the problem had to be somewhere on the page, I plucked my favorite highlighter from my desk and quickly highlighted her verbs and nouns. Aha! I discovered the problem. There was nothing wrong with her writing, nothing wrong with her plotting, and certainly nothing wrong with her characters. The problem was in her word choice. She was choosing hard, hateful, over-the- top nouns and verbs to evoke emotions that weren't anywhere near that dramatic. To show frustration, she was using venomous verbs that indicated hatred. To show impatience, she chose hard-sounding, angry verbs. To show confusion, she chose words that evoked bitterness.
Have I convinced you that subtext exists? Okay, then how do we create subtext instead of letting is seep into our manuscripts unnoticed? I've given the first clue. Word choice. Want to create anger, joy, depression attraction? Try creating those emotion consciously choosing verbs and nouns that evoke those moods, the more concrete the better. Want to take it one step further? Pick verbs and nouns that also sound like the emotions you've chosen. Use hard consonants for hard emotions, soft for softer ones.
If this conscious word choice seems daunting to you, start with the four elements: air, earth wter, fire. Is your heroine a grounded person? Use earth-related verbs, nouns and adjectives when you're in her POV or in the hero's POV when he's thinking about or describing her. Is she ethereal? Try focusing on water words.
What about how we use setting? For me, setting is yet another character in my stories. In my second Love Inspired Harlequin Romance, Hannah's Beau, I described the exterior of a notorious brothel like a woman refusing to accept her age. The madam of this brothel is exactly that, a woman refusing to accept her age. I never say this outright, but it is implied when I describe her home in a way that makes the reader subconsciously think of the owner who has been 29 years old for two decades.
Want to create a dark mood? Use, rain, clouds, or a moonless night. Happy mood? Sunshine, soft breeze, perfect room temperature, background music. How about trepidation? Use fierce winds, cold temperatures, a candle snuffed out by a burst of air.
Although I could talk about this topic forever, I'll give you one last example of subtext. Often what a character doesn't say is as equally important as what she does say. She might utter, "I love you," but her body language (lack of eye contact, shifted stance, crossed arms) say otherwise. Want to show it even further? Our heroine says, "I love you," but her immediate step back followed by an internal thought that reveals her lack of trust toward the hero instantly negates her declaration.
Okay, I've rambled enough. I'll leave you with an exercise that will help you recognize subtext in stories. Pick a favorite movie. Watch a scene with the sound on first. Write down all the emotions and/or moods you think you're seeing in that scene. Now, review that scene again, only this time with the sound off. What does the body language say? What mood are you getting now? What emotions are you seeing that have nothing to do with words? Do they match up with what you saw when the sound was on? Inconsistencies usually indicate a powerful subtext at work.
Thanks, Donnell, for having me here today. I'm a frequent visitor and always come away with new insight. I consider it an honor to share my thoughts on subtext.
Renee Ryan writes for Love Inspired Historicals. Her fabulous editor is Melissa Endlich of Steeple Hill. Look for her first release, The Marshall Takes a Bride, to come out February 9, 2009. For further information check out www.ReneeRyan.com .