Most of y’all know me. If not, feel free to read that fancy Blogger profile. If you don’t have time, here’s the skinny: My name’s Mellisa Tetterton. I’m a fourth semester student in Hamline University’s MFAC program. And I’m thrilled and thankful to join the Inkpot this semester.
How does a post about subtext relate to Marvin Gaye? Spoiler Alert: It doesn’t. I purchased The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot [Charles Baxter], read two chapters last night, and woke up with a headache, a snoring dog, and lots of questions.
Subtext is the meaning beneath dialogue, the feeling beneath the words, that which is unspoken in a story. Why on earth am I writing about subtext?
Why not? I’m a student with questions and the Inkpot log-in information [which trumps key card access to the faculty lounge—not that I would know anything about that…]. Subtext is a daunting word. Characters do and say things that I do not intend. Thank goodness! Just because this pleases me doesn’t mean I’m not scared. The darkest parts of my soul spill onto the page. They’re naked. And my advisors see THEM. I see THEM–sometimes.
How then do we create the invisible?
Drum roll… I don’t know. Our characters know the answers that we don’t. Listen to them. What do they want to say? Trust them. What is your character hiding? “Creep” your characters.
Want to know a secret? Come closer. Closer, now… Okay, keep your hands right there. Characters require our time and attention. If we devote enough time, maybe we will see the invisible. Maybe we won’t. Coming to terms with the unknown is part of the writing life. C’est la vie. Well, Shell has entered the study. The leash dangles from her yap and sways to the rhythm of her tail. What have your characters shown you lately? How do you revise the invisible?
Melissa Tetterton! Well I'll be. What *will* they think of next. Welcome aboard…er.
I try to interview my characters, but I know that if someone saw me talking to a blank chair and answering my own questions and repetitively asking the blank chair "why?" …. I'd be in a straight jacket… How do you feel about that mell?
Thanks, Pearson! I'm stoked!
Hey, J! Please don't question an empty chair IF someone with access to a straight jacket will hear you. Otherwise, go for it. The more time I spend with characters, the more they [sometimes] let me see, hear, and feel. Time away from a WIP is helpful but not always practical in grad. school. I think MQ once used the phrase: "lifting the veil." The more time I spend with characters, the veil lifts a centimeter more–and then, often, drops without notice. C'est la vie. :0)
Was talking about subtext with Bonnie Sue during residency and came to this: One way of thinking about subtext is that it's the ideas/feelings that are too difficult for a person to say directly. So maybe ask your character, What don't they want to say to so and so? Why don't they want to say it directly? What will they say instead?
Cheryl– We're always told to dig deeper into our stories and characters. Your questions are vehicles for doing so. Fear prevents our characters from saying what they want or need to. Fear also prevents us from understanding parts of our characters–which is also a way of avoiding the parts of ourselves that we aren't ready to face.
Why does a character say this, in this way, at this moment? To put ourselves in the character's shoes will lead to a deeper understanding or a total misunderstanding of the character. Your last question, "What will they say instead" fascinates me. Our characters are resourceful. They're survivors.
p.s. How a character says something is worth a separate post. Does she use humor? How's her inflection? How about her body language? All helpful things to think about…
The questions you have expressed Mellisa are quite profound. This definitely taps into the philosophical and psychological realms, of a character, from the writer's perspective. There are many times I have wondered why a novel, short story, etc. has ended the way it did. Sometimes I was left furious, because all in all we will never know WHY what happened, happened. This is deep and I feel you are on to something.
EnPhD88– Charles Baxter is pretty profound, but thank you! Most of my opinions are based on his theories. These questions are useful to think about as we develop our characters.
Mel, I'm so glad that you're blogging! It's great to have a student presence on (in?) the Inkpot. I've actually been reading Baxter's book this past week as well and thinking a lot about subtext, which feels like the ultimate lesson in "show, don't tell." Think about subtext as a bonfire. Our characters can't actually get into the fire without getting burned so they have to dance around it, sing around it, tell ghost stories around it. As writers, we have to figure out exactly what the fire is, then choreograph the scene without showing the fire directly. Readers will see the dancing, they'll hear the singing and the ghost stories, but through all this choreography, they will FEEL the fire. Subtext is all about creating a real, emotional response in our readers.
Mandy!!! How's the post-grad life., love? "Show don't tell" is such a powerful way to evoke feeling–a tango between the writer who wields her pen and the reader who fills in the blanks, the invisible, taking from the story something for herself. I love your phrase "they will feel the fire." That's our hope, isn't it? Maybe a reader will feel something powerful that a writer never intended. Subtext is a wily topic and I was resistant to devote a post to it. Part of the process is leaving one's comfort zone, so… You're spot on, Mandy, because when we show our readers, we invite them into the story. We respect them. We give them the evidence so that they draw their own conclusions–so that they feel. We have no control over that, yet, we discuss manipulating subtext in the revision process. Dizzy yet? HA! Miss you, girl!
So glad to see you on the inkpot lineup, Mellisa! Congrats!
As for subtext, as a writer the thing I love about it is the mystery of it, because 99.9% of the time I have no real idea it's going on until I reread or someone points it out to me. And then the joy I feel…I'm not so sure I want to understand it as a technique, because it feels so organic, so strong-yet-gossamer-fine…It is a way for my characters to leak through past technique, past intent, past ME.
Exactly, Georgia. Subtext is organic and something we can't control, yet in revision we have to up the pulse, make the emotional resonance thrum through the narrative, coarse through the veins of our characters. We must make the invisible, yet deeply felt, palpable. I didn't want to write about this topic at all, for the reasons you cite. We feel this, make our way through the writing, and it's difficult to articulate. So, I wrote about it anyway. HA! Most of the fun, for me, is not knowing. That's why I love to write. Well, one reason, anyway. Glad to see you here, love! :0)
p.s. You should totally see the shoes I'm wearing…