At the March 31st W.I.S.E. Coffee meeting of Words for the Journey, subtext came up at the end of the meeting. Sadly, we were talking about the reputation Christian writers have for putting out “bad fiction.” I gave it an acronym—”BFC,” bad christian fiction, and then there’s “BF,” bad fiction, Christian or not.
In response to the sad looks on everyone’s faces, I said, “You know what the best way to create good fiction is? I mean, really kick it up a notch? You need to learn and practice subtext.
You see, if you analyze BF, most of the time you’ll find that everything is too spot on, especially dialogue.
In spot-on dialogue, people say what they mean and mean what they say. In spot-on dialogue, characters say they’re angry, and they are! So…they’re is no subtlety in this type of dialogue, no little Easter eggs for the reader to mine. And, obvious can mean boring.
- One way to add subtext is for people to seem to be talking about one thing, but they’re really talking about something else. You’ll find an example of this in the online article “Ask the Writer: In Dialogue What is Subtext?” (I share the link at the bottom.)
- Another way is to use symbolism. In the same article, there is a dialogue from The Great Gatsby where Gatsby‘s author uses the shirts—beautiful, richly-made shirts—as a symbol for wealth. Daisy, who truly loves wealth, says over and over how much she loves the shirts.
- Body language also adds subtext. In real life, people say one thing and their body language can support that, show just the opposite, or show they’re hiding something. That’s subtext.
Dialogue is not the only place to put subtext, it’s just the most obvious. Charles Baxter discusses all the places to use subtext in fiction in his book, The Art of Subtext.
Before I give links, I’ll say one more thing about BCF. I don’t think Christian fiction is all bad. I think its reputation from the ’80s has stuck with it. Ever read Francine Rivers? Susan May Warren? It is getting better and will continue to do so.
And, I’ve heard the same complaints about romance genre!
If we really want, we can see bad writing everywhere. The fix is to stop whining and get to work. You be the one whose work isn’t bad. If every writer did that, there wouldn’t be any truly bad writing in any genre.
‘Nuff said. Here are the links:
The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot, by Charles Baxter (print and e-book)
Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath, by Linda Seger (print and e-book)
Writing Subtext: How to craft subtext that develops characters, boosts suspense, and reinforces theme, by Elizabeth Lyon (print and e-book)