Writers write for different reasons, but usually it’s because, well, we have something to say. Sometimes, just what that might be isn’t known at the moment we sit down at the computer. Then there are times we know exactly what the message is and we set to writing it with purpose and effort. Then how come, even then, we end up with luke-warm responses or with something that isn’t as memorable as we’d thought?
I’d like to look at something I think is often missing in stories, particularly short stories and flash fiction: writing with subtext. Now, especially in flash fiction, there often isn’t a lot of room for ‘extras’ but that doesn’t mean we can’t take time to think about the elements we do use in order to craft a meaningful piece. Any story we write is meant to have impact, but if the reader forgets about it seconds after reading, well that’s bit of a disappointment, isn’t it?
A quick search on subtext revealed a lot of posts on dialog and setting and how to use them to imply what is not expressly written. For this post, I’m taking it a little larger in the sense of looking at meanings or ideas which underlie the ‘cover story’, which can be communicated through various devices like dialogue and setting. So why is subtext important? It’s because it’s the jewel buried under the obvious which adds depth to the story and characters while creating the emotional connection we all search for in a read. Without it, stories can come off feeling flat. Or worse, end up forgettable.
I’m not saying I have the magic solution to this, but I do think adding layers of subtext can help. To start, we have to begin thinking about our stories on more than one level. Decide on your ‘cover story’, the surface one the reader came to read. Then take time to consider what elements are driving and influencing that story. What motivates these characters—what do they fear or worry, what is their internal or external conflict really rooted in? How do these elements affect the stakes? Now, the key is not to bash the reader over the head with this information or it would no longer be subtext but part of the cover story. But by carefully planning when, where and how much information to include without interrupting the flow of the main story, you can take your story from 2D to 3D.
One example of this is a flash fiction piece I wrote a while back called Shadow in the Sun. (You can decide it’s worth but I use it because a reader specifically mentioned its subtext so I figured it responded to the purpose of this post. For the sake of space, I’ll only include the link but feel free to read it). On first glance, this is a story about a sad woman burying her dead cat, and some stories would stay on that level (and that’s fine). But as this story develops, it becomes clear that this cat represented much more to her than being a simple pet. The clues left for the reader infer a) what happened to her b) how she felt about it c) how she dealt with it, and leaves the reader to piece together the real story and to make the connection with the act of burying the cat. What’s important is that the reader comes to their own conclusions, and owning them, creates their own unique relationship to the story. And that, I think, is the true power of subtext.
Anyway, those are a few thoughts on subtext. Anyone have other thoughts or ideas to share on the subject? I’d love to hear them.