(For study purposes and maybe a potential future post, I am putting together a list of middle grade books that excel in the use of subtext. Please feel free to add any titles in the comments section that you feel belong on this list. Thanks!)
We recently had a #MGLitChat on the topic of subtext. I signed up to co-host and was scared to death of this chat. My concern was embedded in the fact I felt I didn’t know enough about subtext and figured I needed to do a lot of research to be able to hold my own. Lo and behold, I harkened back to my own middle school days and didn’t study. Fortunately, I was able to play the comic relief to the intellect of my co-host for the night, Lee Gjertsen Malone. When the chat was over, not only did I feel a whole heckuva lot smarter, but I had a whole new appreciation for subtext, especially in middle-grade literature.
What exactly is subtext? The important part that is not there is what subtext is. The stuff which exists in space between what we perceive and is there without being told or shown it is there. I came across a cool quote from Ernest Hemingway about subtext:
“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of the movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”
With the iceberg image painted firmly in our reader and writer mind, we get a solid idea of what subtext is. The words we read in a story are the part floating above the water. The tips of the story icebergs act as the guideposts, while the space in between the guideposts, Hemingway’s 7/8ths, becomes the meaning and character and flavor existing below the surface which makes for a richer narrative. Subtext gives us stories that are more than they appear to be on the surface. Subtext gives us satisfying stories with more of everything.
The four basic types of subtext.
- Privilege – The reader has information the characters don’t.
- Revelation – Reveals a certain truth over time.
- Promise – The story goes the way a story supposed to go and the way the reader expects it to go.
- Question – As a story advances, the reader begins to ask questions about where the story is going.
K.M. Weiland did a recent Helping Writers Become Authors post and podcast about subtext. It is an excellent resource to assist the writer or the reader through the literary dark forest that is subtext. She presents five steps to work subtext into your writing.
(1) Story subtext arises from the space between to known, fixed points. The writer builds a framework of dots and lets the reader connect the dots as they read. When the reader connects all the dots, a rich and full story picture emerges. The writer should tell the reader what they need to know, not tell them everything single thing. That’s not very entertaining.
(2) Story subtext must exist below the surface and (3) remain existing under the surface. The writer needs to know the whole iceberg in order to design the tip that paints the picture of the whole iceberg in the reader’s mind with telling every single detail.
(4) Story subtext is created by the dichotomy between the interior and exterior behavior. Once something rises to the exterior, it can no longer be considered subtext. In practice, it’s simply, as K.M Weiland says, “avoid presenting characters and situations for exactly what they are”.
(5) Subtext exists in the silent spaces. Use your character’s silence to leave out things in order to make sure they don’t tell each other every single thing.
Maybe the most important thing we can do when working on the skill of subtext is to trust the reader. The reader will be able to put together the shape and scope of the submerged story information iceberg. The reader will be able to connect the dots and then put these connections together to reveal the story picture to themselves. Even a middle-grade reader is deserving of this trust and can rock at the art of subtext, as long as the subtext relates to the reader while remaining appropriate for the characters and the story.
Experiment with subtext in your writing. Learn how to spot it being used in your reading. Most of all, learn to trust your reader to connect the dots you place and see the pictures you intended them to see.
That is reading and writing magic.