by Camille Pruvost
As a writer, it can be disheartening to learn that 93% of all communication pertaining to feeling and attitude as nothing to do with words (Mehrabian). Words are literally the only channel through which writers can reach their audience, so how do we overcome this supposed handicap? Subtext.
When an archer aims at a target, she must make a number of calculations to hit the bullseye. While she may not have been consciously aware, she takes into account distance, speed of the arrow, friction against the air, gravity, breeze, etc., which all affect her primary goal: to hit the bullseye.
Like the archer, each character in fiction writing has a main goal and other influences that determine their behavior or speech. These influences may include family expectations, societal standards, morals, insecurities, fears, etc.; they make up the subtext of a story and engage the reader by reflecting the complexities of human communication. Here are several ways you can begin playing with subtext so you can effectively communicate with your audience beyond words:
- Character description
Let your descriptions of other people set up expectations in the reader’s mind concerning their personality. For example, showing up to work with unbrushed hair, crusty-sleepy eyes, and unmatched socks may lead the reader to believe the character does not have her life together or is a bit scattered. The writer has the ability to make the reader like or dislike a character before she’s even opened her mouth.
Choosing settings that have emotional significance to a character, sets up new dynamics of tension and conflict that add complexity and intrigue to a scene. The reader is invested in how the character will react. Will she break down, put on a brave face, ignore her feelings? Something else? The emotional value of the setting—be it a feeling of safety, loss, failure, fear, love—connects the reader to the character and again sets up expectations within the reader as to what will unfold next.
Fifty-five percent of feeling and attitude in a message is delivered through body language, so include body language in your writing (Mehrabian)! Give your characters actions that convey their intent and help them reach their goal. Often times, a gesture will communicate more than any single line of dialogue could. For example, your character’s teacher just finished explaining the homework a second time, but a student who wasn’t paying attention asks to have it repeated a third time. Your character rolls their eyes and lets out an exasperated sigh. That simple action conveys all the frustration within the character without having them explode on the student: “You’re so frustrating! Why didn’t you just pay attention the first time? Now the whole class has to sit through a third explanation because you couldn’t be bothered to pay attention!”
- Revealed Emotion
The reader can only make observations through the character’s point of view. Descriptions that reveal the mental state of the character are a wonderful way to include subtext about the character’s predispositions or biases. Readers learn about who the character is by how they respond and interpret the world around them. Picture your character on vacation in a cabin by a lake. Though most people would find that to be a beautiful and tranquil setting, your character (who is afraid of water) might describe the lake as dark, deceptive, hiding something, never-ending, or otherwise uninviting. Even without spelling out your character’s aquaphobia, their fear is clear in their description of the lake.
A good way to check if you have included effective subtext in your dialogues is to replace all spoken lines with gibberish. If the audience can still understand the intent and emotional state of each character, then the subtext is just right. If not, insert some subtext in the unclear portions.
Camille Pruvost is a Christian Science nurse in her junior year majoring in music and minoring in religion. Her music ministry serves to inspire faith and to facilitate ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. This summer she is traveling with Principia on the Ireland abroad.
Mehrabian, Albert. “”Silent Messages — A Wealth of Information About Nonverbal Communication (Body Language).” Personality & Communication: Psychological Books & Articles of Popular Interest, 1981, http://www.kaaj.com/psych/smorder.html.