Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath (2nd Edition) by Dr. Linda Seger (book review).

March 2, 2017 | By | Reply More

Those of you who read my stories at SFC know, I layer my stories but usually it’s there for those who want to find them not readers who don’t need to worry about such things. It’s just another dimension that adds depth that can be picked up subconsciously or deliberately, if you know what you’re looking for. Sorry if this review is going to be more of a mix of what I know and what I read here. As subtext is something I don’t really spot these days, especially in our genre, I’m just hoping if you do write, you’ll pick up this book and learn some lessons from it.

Although I didn’t read the first edition, I was interested in reading Linda Seger’s second edition book, ‘Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath’ to see if she covered some of the things I already employ. As she points out, subtext is used in film as well as books, so if you write, don’t think there is nothing here for you. For both mediums, I’ll refer to it as the story, although will switch between viewer and reader depending on the medium. How’s that for a demonstration of subtext to pay attention to?

Essentially, the subtext is there to add some depth to the story, giving additional clues as to what is going on by atmospheric weather clues, names and emotional depth without necessarily including it in the dialogue. Would a horror film be that effective on a sunny day or a summer night?

From my perspective, considering that most fiction is a form of lying, you would think having characters lie or misdirect would be easy to do but, more often than not, this is contrary to the honesty of the writer, can’t be sustained or a worry that the reader/viewer won’t get the implication or what is really meant. The villains are expected to lie but the heroes never seem to, except maybe the white lie which is shown to be justified. Where there is a grey area in drama that characters can be either good or bad depending on the situation, that you get something that is nearer to being real people. Capturing this is what dimensionalises the characters and the dilemmas they have to resolve.

As Seger points out in films it started because any sexual connotation could only be suggested in the dialogue. It’s a pity she missed out Hitchcock’s ‘To Catch A Thief’ (1955) where he literally used fireworks but that was a non-dialogue way of doing it. There are a lot of films sited, including some from our genre, in this book and for Hitchcock, Seger chose ‘Psycho’. I have to say I took Norman Bates’ stuffed bird collection as a note of eerie than the fact he knew how to preserve dead bodies. Hardly that well enforced when we finally meet his mother. What she does point out is the differing interpretation of what things mean in different parts of the world, so if you are taking such a route, be careful not to do subtext that could mean something far different.

As her example from ‘Raiders Of The Lost Ark’ points out, the subtext can come out in the dialogue, although I never saw Indiana Jones as the Sunday school type, just making a wry remark against the people he was talking to and their ignorance. Then again, it depends on the framework of your character’s background. It’s something of a cliché that the hero knows more about what is going on than other people to explain to the viewer through explaining to characters on the screen.

Selecting names to match personality is an old tool of stories but it is also subtext which means information is passed on subconsciously to build the imagery in your viewer’s mind. I never consciously picked up the stuffed bird reference to Mary Crane’s surname in ‘Psycho’. After all, a ‘crane’ is also a worksite machine and a better choice of bird name would have avoided ambiguity. Then again, a lot of subtext is unconscious and scriptwriter Robert Bloc might not have realised the connection himself. It is the tool of the trade for the scriptwriter or author to add depth to the material they write. It’s a shame that Seger didn’t explore the fact that some writers can be playful doing this.

I suspect those of you who don’t write but want to learn from this book are going to realise some films have more to offer than you think. Equally, some fiction that should have depth, doesn’t. Hands up how many of you can remember the last time you read a recent book that matches a weather effect to the emotional mood of the story. It is very easy to become a slave to complacency than test the reader to see a connection to the setting.

Seger covers SF in terms of hidden subtext about our own reality, although outside of her example of ‘Avatar’, her other examples are hardly recent fare. You do have to wonder who to blame for this lost of sub-text. For Hollywood, there are so many scriptwriters involved behind the scenes now, you do have to wonder if any subtext message at all survives the tinkering to ensure a film makes its money back. For a final thought to prose writers from my perspective, having a good grasp of grammar is also a subtext and makes sure the reader gets what you mean than getting confused by comma errors.

As you might have noticed by now, I’m more than in favour of subtext and use it myself. I often found writing the review above, I was actually employing it in writing this review so reading this book might enhance your own use of it. I should point out that a lot of subtext isn’t there to show how clever the writer is but to re-enforce what the reader is reading to add depth. If you can learn anything from this book, then this will be part of it and hopefully develop another tool in your storytelling skills.

GF Willmetts

February 2017

(pub: Michael Wiese Productions. 209 page indexed small enlarged paperback. Price: $18.95 (US). ISBN: 978-1-61593-258-0)

check out website: www.mwp.com

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About the Author ()

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 15 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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