Thursday, August 04, 2005

Subtexting--Day 2

Yesterday a question came through on subtexting. Its answer may be helpful for you all:

I just had this problem on a chapter I wrote last night. How much do we want to lead the reader? For example. A character tells a lie during a conversation. Do I write: “Pat was with me when her husband was killed.” Marty's eyes flicked momentarily away from Megan’s. Or do I continue on with: Megan watched his face, doubting the alibi.

First--to answer the direct question--I’m not clear about what you want to do. If you want the reader to understand that Megan knows Marty is lying, then we need to see that understanding. I’d show an action of Marty’s, as with the flicking eyes, that would give his lie away, then use some form of narrative thought for Megan. For example: Marty always had been a poor liar. He was even worse at it now. (Or whatever would fit with the characters.)

However—the real point I want to make about this question is that this isn’t subtexted dialogue, although it’s close. This is a liar giving himself away through body language. True subtexting occurs when the speaker says one thing but means something else—and knows that the hearer will pick up that real meaning.

Now, from here on out, the scene could shift into subtexting. Remember from yesterday’s post the two situations in which subtexting occurs: (1) The speaker doesn’t want to say what he’s thinking, or (2) The speaker doesn’t need to say what he’s thinking because the other person already knows it. Let’s say Megan understands Marty is lying and wants him to know he’s not fooling her for a minute, but doesn’t want to come right out and say it (example of situation #1). This could occur if she doesn’t know him well enough to directly call him a liar. She might respond as follows: “Oh, I see.” She surveyed him, lips pressed. “How very convenient.”

Situation #2 tends to occur when the speakers know each other well and stumble upon a subject that carries a lot of baggage between them. For example, let’s say Marty and Megan are married. He has a history of lying to Megan and failing to support her emotionally. This has hurt her deeply. Suddenly she finds him lying to her again. Even though he’s lying to protect their friend Pat—a half-worthy cause, perhaps—the lie triggers all her memories of his betrayals. Her response is anger, and the desire to remind him of how his lies and irresponsibility have hurt her—something he should well know. She might respond like this: Her head pulled back. She regarded him with narrowed eyes, her mouth tightening. “How thoughtful of you to be there when she needed you.”

Notice where the real meaning lies in the above examples of subtexted dialogue—not in the words themselves, but in everything that is occurring around the words. I use the acronym TIME. That is, in subtexted conversation, you write the real meaning into your scene using Thought, Inflection, Movement, and Expression. In example #1, inflection (with the emphasis of see) and expression are used. In example #2, movement and expression are used.

More on TIME and how to write subtexted dialogue tomorrow. Meanwhile--do you have a short passage of subtexting from your wip that you're willing to show us?

Read Part 3


Domino said...

"Liz!" How nice of you to come by. Won't you come in?"

Strange. Mandy wasn't usually this formal. "Do you have guests?" Liz whispered.

Mandy rolled her eyes, grabbed Liz's hand and walked her into the kitchen. "Liz, you remember Sam, Nico's dad. He just arrived. Isn't that nice?"

Mandy's smile seemed overdone. Was she overcompensating again? Trying to make him feel welcome even though it obviously irritated her when he showed up without warning?

C.J. Darlington said...

I think this is an example of subtexting, albeit a short one. This takes place at a buffet in a restaurant. The character Roxi is a teenage girl, Irene is her foster mother:

Roxi scooped a dollop of mashed potatoes onto her plate. Don’t make waves. That was the mantra she’d recited to herself over the past few weeks. Keep the peace.

She swiped a whole wheat roll and a pat of whipped butter. It needed to stay that way.

“Try some of this.” Irene ladled a corn souffle mixture onto Roxi’s plate before she could protest.

“I don’t like corn, Irene.”

“Just a little.”

Irene knows Roxi doesn't like corn. By serving it to her anyway I was trying to show how Irene is trying to control/manipulate Roxi.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I can see how this technique would enrich my WIP. I can't think of an example from my WIP but look forward to seeing how it plays out.

Cara Putman