Thursday, November 29, 2012

Subtext for the Simple-Minded

 Had a nice conversation today with my friend and awesome writer, Alex Shvartsman. It was about subtext.

Apparently, some people don't believe in it.

To which I say: that may be so; but in [Soviet] Russia, subtext believes in you!
"What terrible food," said Sue.
"Yes," said Ann. "And such small portions!"
One evening he was dining in the gardens, and the lady in the béret came up slowly to take the next table.[...] He beckoned coaxingly to the Pomeranian, and when the dog came up to him he shook his finger at it. The Pomeranian growled: Gurov shook his finger at it again.
The lady looked at him and at once dropped her eyes.
"He doesn't bite," she said, and blushed.

Irina Asanova (a cinematic costumer):
The director of that film promised me a pair of new boots if I went to bed with him. Think I should?

Arkady Renko (a police officer):
Well, the winter's almost over.
-Martin Cruz Smith, GORKY PARK

"...Well, what I was nearly forgetting is this: that, though I am aware that you can't forgo your engagement, I am not going to give you up—no, not for ten thousand roubles of money. I tell you that in advance."
Here he broke off to run to the window and shout to his servant (who was holding a knife in one hand and a crust of bread and a piece of sturgeon in the other—he had contrived to filch the latter while fumbling in the britchka for something else):
"Hi, Porphyri! Bring here that puppy, you rascal! What a puppy it is! Unfortunately that thief of a landlord has given it nothing to eat, even though I have promised him the roan filly which, as you may remember, I swopped from Khvostirev." As a matter of act, Chichikov had never in his life seen either Khvostirev or the roan filly.
-N. V. Gogol, DEAD SOULS 

There is a reason most of these quotes are either by Russian writers or by Russian characters: few things are more thoroughly ingrained into the Russian mind than talking over a censor's head, around a police informant, or through a monitored telephone line. Subtext isn't a luxury, it's a necessity. This makes it easy to write in subtext.

All you have to do is censor yourself.
"What terrible food," said Sue.
Ann, for whatever reasons, is unable to disagree, though the food is pretty good, and she is hungry. She is hunting for a negative comment to make about the food for which she is still rather hungry. What is the first thing that pops into her head?
"Yes," said Ann. "And such small portions!"
As an exercise, think about the underlined speech in each quote:

-What did the character want to say?

-What keeps him or her from saying that directly?

-What what is the character thinking, that makes them say what they actually said?

-What quotes can you come up with, from your favorite works, that work with subtext in similar ways?

-You can live in America and write exactly what you mean? What a great country!

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