Sunday, June 8, 2008

Subtext

Part Six

Recently, I've been doing a lot of work on subtext. I like to think I don't have problems, but I'd be lying. Subtext is one of those craft problems where knowledge doesn't help because it's a control issue.

You have to be able to trust yourself. Trust your writing. And trust your reader to get what you're trying to say. It's sorta like...

...four bads for one. 1) back story 2) telling 3) passive voice and 4) godawful-horrible dialog tags.

i.e.

Jane sat in the airplane she had boarded back in Boston. Her hair was long, curling in glorious waves of apricot touched with gold as people told her. She pushed it back with her long elegant fingers as the beverage cart came down the aisle that she had walked down earlier to get to her seat.

"Excuse me," she said yawningly to the attendant in the blue uniform. "I need some coffee to stay awake. This plane trip is taking forever."

Unless you can pull a rabbit out of your hat, this is an instant reject.

Jane sat in the airplane( she had boarded back in Boston).--this is back story, and needs to go. Unless her coming "from" Boston has something to do with the action right up front, it can be worked into the story later.

I'd also suggest bringing it in tighter by adding sensory details.

Jane threw her head back and stared at the control panel. Even at full blast, the air did nothing for her nausea. She covered up a yawn. She was so tired, she felt sick.


Her hair was long, curling in glorious waves of apricot touched with gold as people told her. (...and that's why this is called "telling". Instead of showing us Jane's hair through another person's pov, or in dialog...)

"My God, Jane--what did you do to your hair? It's orange."

lol...

Or if you really gotta do it, at least make it short?

She leaned forward and apricot colored hair spilled across the fold out tray.


She pushed it back with her long elegant fingers >>>more telling

...as the beverage cart came down the aisle that she had walked down earlier to get to her seat.---not even important back story. Just tacked on in case you missed that Jane was on a plane, and had walked down the aisle of...right, a plane.

"Excuse me," she said.

...yawningly to the attendant in the blue uniform. "I need some coffee to stay awake. This plane trip is taking forever." ---explains what should be written into the scene.

She's tired. It's taking forever and there are airline attendants. This is your subtext. The whole bit underneath.

Writing is not a two dimensional craft. There are more than words on paper, there's another world. Subtext is troubleshooting the invisible.

6 comments:

Jeanna said...

Ouch. Sometimes you make my head hurt. As long as brain frozen, must eat ice cream.

Alice Audrey said...

LOL Jeanna.

Jodi, I have always considered myself pretty good at subtext. It was subtext that drew me to reading and to writing in the first place. But I tend to cause my readers to go "huh" a lot. As I go back through my work fixing it I will sometimes end up telling too much. It is indeed a case of not trusting my reader, but only after readers. And it does have to be addressed.

It's like the material that is needed must pass through the steam release of a pressure cooker before I can get it right.

Kaige said...

Ok. 1 out of 4 conquered. :)

Between you and Joanna Bourne's recent post, my brain is simmering. I just don't have time to do anything with all the sudden clarity.

Maybe I'll just have some icecream with Jeanna.

Unhinged said...

I love your examples. They make-ith me laugh.

jodi said...

they maketh my head hurt too, must be 'cause I was tired, and had too much editing that day. It startles me how I can write like that without trying. I think it's because I see so much of this particular style.

yeah, you're right, Alice.

Sometimes people catch, sometimes they drop the ball. It's hard to predict. *sigh*

Deanna said...

I've been trying to learn to get that balance right, between enough info. and the wrong (telling) subtext. I like what you've written before about trusting the reader. I hate it when an author doesn't trust me!

I should soon be learning a bit of what it's like in your editing world, as I'll be starting as a reader for a journal. No accepting or rejecting yet, just recommending or not. Should be interesting.