February 13, 2014 by Ifeoma Dennis
There’s a writing trick I’m trying to master, which is called subtexting. Actually, one of the scenes I wrote last night had a minor subplot subtexting in it, which inspired me to write this post.
In the said scene, I was about to cross the line with a SEE ME! subtext (you know, subtexts that explain the subtext much like this particular parenthesis is trying to do) 🙂 but caught myself in time.
Subtexting and clues are almost the same thing to me, because you hide clues in sentences that are subtexts, and sometimes, you hide clues in events that are also subtexts.
And because I’m a sucker for explaining with scenarios, I’d show you one that might help explain the new tricks I’ve learned better.
Ada goes to the Old City market where she buys a Death Poison.
She gives it to her best friend, Sara who is dating her sick and secret enemy.
Being her secret enemy, that goes without saying that Ada didn’t tell Sara she ABSOLUTELY LOATHES the boyfriend or that the Energy Snack she gave Sara was not actually an Energy Snack but a Death Poison.
Of course, Ada knows Sara would not take the Energy Snack because Sara is allergic to the Energy Snack. In fact, given the long history Sara’s Boyfriend and Ada had shared, Ada knows the Energy Snack is his favorite thing.
So let’s say Sara’s Boyfriend dies a few days later, and the context of the story/subplot is did the sick boy die of natural causes?
Was it that the doctors who tended to him were incapable?
Or could it be the ridiculous age-old prophecy of Sara’s boyfriend dying of poisoning at age 21 that eventually came true?
Now the question:
Sara decides it is the age-old prophecy that came true but now she was going to find who did it, how do you get through the plot/sub-plot without giving it away that it was Ada?
But this is difficult you see, because a reader who read Ada giving Sara the Energy Snack at the beginning could easily guess things at this point. And usually, it is important you show this happening somewhere at the beginning, so you don’t spring Surprises-From-Nowhere at the reader.
Here are some of the things I could do after or before said event at the beginning, together or separately:
In this case, I might use a backstory showing Ada’s previous relationship with Sara.
Old me might do this: I’d show Sara reminiscing on when Ada would always come back from the Old City with a gift for Sara. Or when a minor character would sulkily ask Ada, “why do you always buy things for Sara and not for me?”
New me’s likely to do this: I could make Sara remember giving Ada things she bought when she went to the Old City.
I leave it to my reader to deduce it could go both ways.
2. Present day events:
After the death of Sara’s boyfriend, that is.
Old me: I’d show Ada buying more things from the Old City for Sara after the boyfriend’s death. Hello reader, make the connection! I don’t want you to be too lost. 🙂
New me: I’d show Sara/Ada suggesting to the other that they go to the Old City and shop to keep happy like old times. This could also work with (D) explained below.
Old me: I’d show Ada along with some other friends giving Sara goodies while Secret Enemy was still sick. Since Sara was taking care of him, she had little time to cook. But I’d MAKE SURE to focus on Sara receiving something from Ada, much like the capslock.
New Me: Sara would still get something from Ada and friends, but none would be more important. Matter of fact, I might make Sara focus on the one that’s less important to make the reader ignore Ada’s gift.
But again, this is a slightly difficult trick by itself, since readers like me would always look for the unobvious, so it’s best to balance it…you know, don’t make the unobvious so unobvious the readers would suspect it is THE THING, but balance it in a way that you make it obvious but not important.
Okay, not sure if unobvious is a word, but hey, I’m a writer 😉 and I can invent things.
Before said event.
Old me: I’d show that poisons are sold in the Old City. This is not a bad subtexting in itself, if I can show that poisons AND other things are sold in the Old City.
New Me: I could show Ada and Sara passing by a shop where the people that are coming out looked suspiciously evil. Or better yet, where one of the people coming out was someone Ada/Sara recognized as evil. They’d probably discuss that.
Not that I’m perfect in this art of subtexting yet. For my fantasy mystery/suspense/thriller/sorry-not-sure-of-the-genre, I use dozens of methods I can’t articulate here. Sometimes, I delete them after writing because I feel it’s a giveaway subtext. Sometimes, I keep them.
But one thing is sure, it is really my most fun part of writing, and also one I’m quite curious about.
How about you? How do you handle subtexting? What are your tricks for making the obvious not obvious?