Writing Excuses 17.34: Developing Subtext
Key points: Text, subtext, and context. The words on the page, the layer of meaning underneath that, and what’s going on around the words. How do you provide the clues to let the reader get the subtext? Body language, character interpretation. The emotional charge in what’s being said. On the nose!
[Season 17, Episode 34]
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Dialogue Masterclass Episode Seven, Developing Subtext.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Maurice] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re between the lines.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Maurice] I’m Maurice.
[Howard] And I’m Howard.
[Dan] Awesome. So. We are going to talk about subtext today. I think the very first question I want to ask you, Maurice, is what is subtext?
[Maurice] So, subtext. So, when I think about subtext, so… I’m going to try a math analogy here, so bear with me. So dialogue operates in three dimensions. There is text, subtext, and context. So the way I think about it is text is like the words on the page, subtext is the layer of meaning underneath the words on the page, and context is what’s going on around those words. So when I think about subtext… I mean, we all intuitively understand subtext, because if I come home and my wife is on the couch watching TV and I go, “Hey. Is anything wrong?” And she says, “No! Everything’s fine!” Like, my Spidey senses are going to go off. Just on an intuitive level. I know something’s going on, but the words on the page were “No, everything’s fine.” Yet I know, because of context and subtext, yeah, maybe everything is not fine. So that’s what I think about… That’s one way I think about subtext.
[Dan] Yeah. Subtext is very useful in a lot of different ways. There’s a lot of things that you can accomplish with it. You can say things without coming right out and saying them. You can have the characters inferring and implying things. You can even get around various censors, is some of the ways that I’ve used subtext in the past as well. So it’s a useful dialogue tool because if you can pack something with a subtext, you can… It becomes very information rich. Right? The same things are being said, but we understand much more than just the words that are being said. So I guess the question is how do you do that? How do you imbue something with this extra hidden meaning?
[Mary Robinette] So I want to use what… The framework that Maurice has already set up, which is that there is the text, subtext, and context. Subtext, and this is important, exists between the text and the context. You cannot have subtext without having context to compare it to. So here’s an example which I think I have used before. So I come from the American South, which is what is called a high context region. So high context culturally means that in order to participate in the conversation, you have to have a lot of context, because so much of it happens subtextually. So these are examples like the American South, large parts of Asia, Brazil as I understand it, will have big parts of the conversation that everybody understands, but is not actually said out loud. So, my husband, by contrast, comes from a low context culture which is you just say things directly without much subtext. So here’s the actual conversation. My mom says, “There’s a bag of apples on the counter in the kitchen.” I reply, “Oh, okay, I can have a pie made for dinner tomorrow night.” My husband’s like, “Wait a minute. Where did the pie come from?” I’m like, “Well, she just said that there’s a bag of apples on the counter in the kitchen.” Because to me, contextually, this is very clear based on the relationship my mom and I have. All of the subtext in there is “I bought a bag of apples. If you have time to make a pie, it would be really great, but I don’t want to put you out.” I’m like, “Oh, making a pie sounds awesome. I don’t have time or energy tonight, but I could do it tomorrow night.” But you only get the pieces of dialogue on either end of that. “There’s a bag of apples on the counter in the kitchen.” “Great, I can have a pie for tomorrow night.” My husband is like, “Wouldn’t… Don’t you think she was just offering you an apple?” I’m like, “No. Because then she would have said do you want an apple, or, more likely because high context society, she would have just brought me apples to avoid the other conversation which is would you like an apple? No, thank you, I couldn’t. Really, they’re very fresh. No, seriously, I just can’t take an apple. But these are apples that were picked at my grandmother’s farm. Oh, well, in that case, of course I’d love to try an apple.” So when you’re thinking about this, this subtext, you have to think about the context that goes around it. Because… This is the other fun thing, people will read the subtext based on their cultural understanding of how subtext works. They will bring their own context to the conversation. So if I said to my husband there’s a bag of apples on the counter in the kitchen, and he didn’t… Well, actually, I would never say that to him because I know that he… Let’s be clear, I know that he does not have the context. But, if I were writing a novel and I wanted to make things awkward, then my character would just say that, and then my character would get mad because he didn’t read the subtext. Which would be very clear to everyone there. So, thinking about the subtext as the unspoken part that is kind of held in suspension between text and context.
[Dan] Okay. So let me follow this up. Let’s say that you were going to put into a book that conversation with your mother. How would you provide the right contextual clues to let a non-Southern audience understand what was really going on?
[Mary Robinette] So this is where you have to use the non-spoken… The other pieces of dialogue. So we’ve been talking about dialogue as the lines that are said out loud. But there’s also all of the other pieces. There’s body language, and then there’s the character’s interpretation of the line that is said. So this is where you would deploy something like free indirect speech where the character interprets it as part of the narrative or… So that my character might think, “Oh, I know that mom really wants a pie. So that’s why she’s mentioning the apples.” Or, actually, if it’s free indirect, “She knew that her mother really wanted a pie. She didn’t have the energy to do it that night. So she made a counter offer. I could have a pie ready tomorrow night.”
[Howard] Yeah. In thinking about the pie thing, it occurred to me that the way the apples are described tells you whether or not they are pie apples or eating apples.
[Mary Robinette] In a bag.
[Howard] There’s a bag of apples on the counter is pie apples.
[Mary Robinette] In the kitchen.
[Howard] I’ve… In the kitchen on the counter. Yeah, I’ve… Bag of apples in the kitchen. I put apples and the fruit basket on the counter is I found some apples that I think you will love and I have set them in this basket and I would love for you to try one because we have this thing about artisanal apples and eating them and whatever. It’s the difference between the bag in the basket.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Context.
[Dan] Okay. Let’s pause for the book of the week, which, Maurice, this is you this time.
[Maurice] Yeah. So, it’s a book… It’s not out yet. I believe it comes out early 2023. It’s called The Lies of the Ajungo. It’s by Moses Ose Utomi. So, it’s a novella. I’ve read this novella twice already. I really love it. I’m just going to read the back cover copy for you real quick. “In the City of Lies, they cut out your tongue when you turn 13 to appease the terrifying Ajungo empire and make sure it continues sending water. Tutu will be 13 in three days, but his parched mother won’t last that long. So Tutu goes to his oba and makes a deal. She provides water for his mother, and in exchange, he’ll travel out to the desert and bring back water for the city. Thus he begins his quest for salvation for his mother, his city, and himself.” The great thing I love about this book is this book moves at the speed of fable. If that makes sense. Moses has a way of just weaving magic into his… All the lines in this book. So, like everything has a certain weight to it, on top of just the lush language that he uses. So I’ve really enjoyed this book, obviously, twice. It’s just I love the magic that it just… This book is just imbued with.
[Dan] Cool. That is The Lies of the Ajungo by Moses Ose Utomi. That’ll be out next year, in 2023. So look for it then.
[Dan] Okay. So, let’s talk some more about subtext. Howard, how are you able to put subtext into the work that you do?
[Howard] In comics, it’s actually pretty easy. Because you can have a dialogue bubble whose words disagree with, at least on the surface, the facial expression, the body language, of the character. I didn’t have to use words to describe how the character was standing. I can just communicate all of the body language with the dialogue, and the subtext is right there. In prose, it’s something that I’ve had to learn, and it’s something that I’ve actually had to back off of a little bit because I can see… When I’m writing, I can see the way people are talking, the way they’re… The things their faces are doing, the things they’re doing with their hands, and I have to decide which of it is important and which of it is not. Because I’m capable of describing all of it, but it really slows down a scene when I do that. So, for me, subtext is an exercise in… It’s like an exercise in risk reward management. Which of these little bits of body language can I describe for the most impact, and which do I just need to let slide because there isn’t enough page.
[Mary Robinette] The other thing that you just said that I want to keep up to this is body language and seeing them interact. But sometimes what the subtext is is not a specific line that I just didn’t say out loud. Sometimes the subtext is just a mood. That the subtext is this character is annoyed all the way through this scene. Because there’s what’s called direct versus indirect communication. I referred to this earlier, direct is, “Will you pass the salt?,” indirect is, “Is there salt?”. Even more indirect is, “Oh, this soup is a little bland.” Although…
[Howard] Oh, that’s direct.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah, that is direct.
[Mary Robinette] Actually, that’s… Scratch that. Those are fighting words. Unless you’re [garbled]. But thinking about, when you’re crafting that subtext, thinking about your character’s emotional state is also going to really express… Really help you guide how that happens.
[Maurice] Yeah. So I think…
[Dan] Uh… Oh, okay, go ahead Maurice.
[Maurice] One of the ways I think about subtext is, just like Mary Robinette said, it’s like subtext is the emotional charge underneath what’s being said. Right? A lot of times, as you’re seeing the scene, the characters, they’re going to betray what they’re really feeling in some subtly different ways. Right? What… Again, I’m a TV junkie, but one of the shows I watch, one of the police procedural’s I watch which really helped me out a lot in this was a show called… It only lasted like three seasons… Called Lie to Me. It was based on a book by Paul Ekman. I think he wrote a book called Telling Lies. But it’s all about micro-expressions. Right? So, just watching how they would explain how micro-expressions work, all of a sudden I’m just like, “Oh. Hang on.” So now I am getting to see just the direct correlation between what the body betrays about what a person’s really feeling and now I’m able to convey that in the text. So for us as writers, it’s like oh, I don’t need as many dialogue tags if I’m writing their physical reaction to something. What was their physical reaction? What was their facial expression? What other kind of body language are they betraying with what’s being said in the moment? So that’s one of the things that helped a lot.
[Mary Robinette] So, while we’re talking about this, I actually want to talk about the opposite of subtext, which is on the nose. Because one of the flaws that you’ll see sometimes with early career writers or published writers to is that you’ll read something and be like, “Wow, that’s really on the nose dialogue.” What that means is that the character is saying exactly what they’re thinking in the moment without any subtext at all. It is exactly serving the plot in that moment. There’s no tension, there is no… It’s just statements…
[Howard] There’s nothing to unpack.
[Mary Robinette] That are not… There’s nothing to unpack at all. It’s fine for a character to do that occasionally. But if you have a string of it, where everyone is doing that, that’s where you wind up with on the nose dialogue.
[Dan] Yeah. The… Both on the nose dialogue and subtext can be very useful tools culturally. So for… A good example of on the nose being very good, I just watched a movie from India called RRR. It’s about two guys, two revolutionaries in the early 1900s in India who end up meeting each other. Then there’s a song, because it’s an Indian movie and they have songs. They have a whole song where the lyrics are as on the nose as it could be. These two guys just met each other, now they’re best friends. Even though one of them is secretly working against the other one and doesn’t realize it. Like it’s… The whole plot of the movie just described to you by a guy singing a song. Culturally, that’s really valuable, because I don’t… I’m not a part of that culture. There are nuances to their interaction into their relationship that I would have missed without that song to say, “Hey. Gringo who’s watching this, let me explain some stuff to you.” At the same time, subtext can be really useful for cultural reasons as well. Some of the write-for-hire stuff that I have written… In one, for example, I wanted to make two of the characters gay and they did not let me for corporate reasons. They’re like, “No. We will not allow that. We’re not going to have gay characters.” So I was able to make them clearly gay in subtext so that someone looking for it will be able to see it and someone who doesn’t want that in their fiction doesn’t have it. That kind of stuff is so useful as a way of giving your audience the kind of stuff that they need. The ability to see yourself in fiction, especially for marginalized groups, often comes through subtext because we can’t say it out loud.
[Mary Robinette] Just, again, to underline what Dan is talking about, the thing is that those clues are there for someone who has the right context, and is looking for it.
[Mary Robinette] But for someone who does not live in that context, they aren’t there. Also, I think that we should all acknowledge that the corporate overlords are in the wrong in that particular case.
[Dan] Absolutely. That was the subtext of my statement. Yes.
[Mary Robinette] Yes. I was saying the quiet part out loud for you.
[Dan] Thank you very much.
[Howard] Very on the nose.
[Mary Robinette] Yes. So. Let’s slide into our homework. I want you to… We’re going to force you to develop subtext. I want you to take a work in progress… If you want to grab that transcript that we had earlier, that’s also fine. But grab a scene with dialogue where you understand what’s going on in that scene. As a writing exercise, I want you to just delete every third line, regardless of who’s saying it, regardless of how important it is. I just want you to delete every third line. Then go back and try to use nonverbal cues to make the dialogue still make sense.
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.