Saturday, 25 June 2016

Getting to Grips with Subtext

Subtext is a clever literary device that isn’t often thought about by writers, but it’s quite effective when used properly. The wonderful thing about subtext is that it’s something that isn’t seen, but the reader knows it’s there and, hopefully, they understand it.

Knowing what subtext is and what it does is different to getting to grips with it, but subtext isn’t difficult to achieve; often it happens subconsciously by the writer. But subtext comes down to having a complete awareness of the characters and the story; it’s the very undercurrent beneath the words. It’s hidden from view, to become visible at the right moment. It has the power to create mood and atmosphere, emotion and conflict in very subtle and unobtrusive ways.

Subtext is about how it’s done- the art of revelation. But why use it? Why go to all that trouble of suggestion when the writer could simply just say it in the narrative?

The answer lies in how fiction is constructed. Remember, every novel is written for the reader, not the writer. So it’s not just about writing a good story with affable characters that overcome a few dilemmas and live happily ever after. It’s much more than that. The reading experience is all inclusive – your reader wants a good story, likable characters, nail biting situations, action/thrills/romance, emotion and atmosphere and everything in between. And subtext is just one of those things that make reading a novel so enjoyable and encompassing.

But how do you achieve it?

Effectiveness in anything comes with experience, so the more you write, the more you develop your writing skills and the more intuitive you’ll become with things like metaphor and subtext.

Read any book and there will be always be layers beneath the narrative, such as a certain look between characters, a snippet of description, certain behaviour or something a character says – all elements that make up subtext. Here’s an example, from one of my short stories called Passing Judgement, where the main character is wrongly accused of terrible crime:

The cold cloud that hovered above the hill seemed close and oppressive and constricted, like a thick rope around the larynx, pressing tight against the skin. A lasting winter lilt gilded the brow of the hill and formed thin, introspective shadows which slithered along the frosted mounds and worked their way up to the elongated silhouette that shaded the trunk of the barren oak tree. The shadow remained still, except when mocked now and then by a curious cool breeze.

Narrative subtext relies on hints within the description that reader can detect. These are the visual clues the reader will notice, and in the opening sentence, the words ‘close and oppressive and constricted, like a thick rope around the larynx’ is a subtle visual clue to what is really happening. Without stating the obvious, the description allows the reader to understand the moment, yet read between the lines and the unseen becomes seen. The theme of the story is there to see. It’s actually describing someone hanging from a tree.

Subtext in dialogue is the most common way of allowing the reader to understand the characters. A simple example is from To Kill a Mockingbird. At the end of the story, Boo, who is portrayed as someone to be feared, finally comes out of hiding and stands on Scout's porch.

‘Hey Boo’.

That’s all Scout says to him. But underneath this delivery we can sense the warmness of her greeting; she is not scared of him - unlike the adults - and does not see Boo as someone to fear. She is comfortable in his presence. It’s simple, yet it works, because we know Scout’s true sentiment.

Here’s another simple example, where the main character is talking to a prisoner in a train:

‘Why do you wear a star on your clothes?’ Dmitry asked.

‘It’s the star of St David. The sign of a Jew.’

Dmitry’s face furrowed. ‘Perhaps when you get to safety they will give you food, new clothes and things. This train stops at Treblinka.’


‘That’s where the train is heading,’ Dmitry said. ‘Lots of trains, every day, full with people. You’ll be safe there.’

Dialogue subtext is a way of hinting at something without directly saying it, so in this example, the real emotion and meaning lies beneath the surface of the main character’s optimism. It’s obvious to the reader, without saying it directly, what will happen to the man with star on his clothes.

Characterisation subtext is about behaviour. In real life, people display different behaviours and reactions, and fiction is no different. Subtext is a great way for writers to show these behaviours in such a way that the reader sees more within the story than is actually being shown, for example this scene between these two characters – one a crack addict and the other, her dealer:

Tiffany stared at the silver packet, mesmerised by the way it glimmered beneath the light, the way it drew her in beyond the gleam, beyond the superficial nature of it. It plunged her headlong into a grubby darkness of want and need.

Smoke coiled around his weathered face as he watched her. His eyes narrowed.

She glanced at him, her voice throaty, absent. ‘You had everything yesterday. I’m sore...’

Movement in the corner caught his eye; a smaller shadow, a vulnerable one, staring at him from the cot. He went over to the child, fingered her hair. ‘I don’t care. I want my money, so you better get out there and earn it or else.’ 

Here, the unseen is a way to highlight emotion and sentiment and these reactions speak to the reader, without actually stating the obvious. Beneath the narrative, something dark and unpleasant lurks. By standing next to the child and playing with her hair, his real intentions are clear, while Tiffany’s addictive needs are apparent by the way the cocaine packet mesmerises her.

There are many ways to show subtext. It can be within narrative, dialogue or characterisation. Think of it this way: everyone loves a treasure hunt. To uncover the clues and find something hidden is always exciting. And that’s why writers use subtext. Because readers secretly love a treasure hunt.
Next week: Active versus passive fiction.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Creating Plot Twists

Creating a plot twist isn’t too hard if you understand how they work and why they’re used. Many writers fail to grasp the importance of a plot twist or indeed just how they affect the story arc. If you don’t understand what a plot twist does, then there’s every chance you’ll find it hard to get right.
Why use them?
Writers use a plot twist as a way to change the direction of the story, to ‘twist’ in another direction, usually one that is a complete surprise to the reader. In other words, the reader doesn’t see it coming. You can have one twist, perhaps at the end of the story, or you can have more, throughout the story, as a way to keep the reader enthralled.
The beauty of the plot twist is that it can be like a sonic boom – wham, a shock revelation. Or it can be foreshadowed and revealed at the right moment. Either way, it’s a surprise twist for the reader. So whether you foreshadow them or whether it really is a bolt from the blue, they have to be executed cleverly and perfectly for them to work.
That’s why many writers plan through the story plot carefully before they even write anything. This gives them the chance to plan their plot twists. Of course, some do happen spontaneously, too, they happen naturally via story progression. If you want to study plot twists and how they’re accomplished, read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. These examples have great plot twists that not only surprise, but also keep us hooked to every page.
So how do you create them?
An effective plot twist should always be part of the central story and not some deux ex machina contrivance forced into existence to plug your plot holes. It has to grow from the main plot and involve the main character in a dramatic way. There has to be an important point why it’s happening, but that ‘twist’ element is something you keep back from the reader for a while, until the right moment in the story. Then it’s delivered like a punch to the stomach. Think of the ‘twist’ as a narrative bomb which has to be timed perfectly.
The twist should, to use a cliché, pull the rug from beneath the reader’s feet. That’s the feeling it should evoke. If done correctly, the reader won’t see it and so it will have maximum impact. If, however, they guess what’s going to happen, then the element of surprise is lost and the twist won’t be as effective.
The way around this is not to make the plot twist so obvious that everyone can see it. Be subtle with clues. Drop hints in the narrative; foreshadow with a soft touch. But above all, make the surprise count.
The other thing to consider with a plot twist is expectation. This is what every reader will have in abundance. They will expect action, thrills, romance, shocks and surprises...and as the writer, you have to deliver some of these expectations. But because the reader expects so much, we as writers have the liberty of turning into a grinning villains because we can tease and lure them, we can wrong-foot them, we can jump scare them, we can plant red herrings and best thing of all, we can throw our hero into absolute peril every chance we get. That’s what we do in order to build up tension and play dirty with that reader expectation for as long as we can.
Then we can let them have that twist with both barrels. That makes it even more satisfying.
Plot twists don’t just shift in unexpected directions to keep the reader on their toes; they are used throughout the story to advance the main plot. Of course, all these elements depend on the story you’re writing, since plot twists are unique to that story and characters. You might, for example, have a story about a young family – a mother and father and their children – a boy and girl, who move into a new house. 
All is well until the pet cat vanishes. And other pets in the neighbourhood. And things get worse when the girl disappears. The little boy becomes cold and uncommunicative, which gives the appearance of grief. Neighbours start to talk.
Except the plot twist is that the boy is not grieving at all. He’s just a cold hearted child who killed his sister, ate her flesh and buried her with the cat in the back garden.
That’s a really simple example of a plot twist set up. Characters – situation – tension – expectation – red herrings, and finally the revelation.
Plot Twists Summary:

  • They can change the direction of the story with the element of surprise.
  • They take advantage of reader expectation.
  • They must be central to the story and characters.
  • They reveal something that both reader and characters won’t know.
  • They can advance the main plot.
  • There can be more than one twist in the story.
With a cleverly executed plot twist, you want to give the reader what they expect, but in a way that is completely unexpected.

Next week: Getting to grips with subtext.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Better Writing - Dealing with Exposition

Exposition is a word writers use all the time, but what do we mean when we talk about exposition?
It’s a term used to provide the reader with certain information about characters, events, actions, settings or the background. It’s a necessary component of any story, but it’s how exposition is delivered that makes the difference. It can be done correctly or incorrectly.
Despite the amount of information on the internet telling you there are umpteen different types of exposition, for creative writing there are only two types of exposition that matter: Direct and indirect exposition.
Direct Exposition
The title tells you all you need to know. The information being provided is direct. It’s telling the reader all the important stuff, but it tends to end up as info dumps because the writer hasn’t handled it very well, for example:
John had lived in the town all his life and still lived in the house that his grandparents owned. He felt a strong bond with the place and couldn’t entertain the thought of leaving, like his brother had done. He couldn’t leave behind the grand history of the house or the land upon which it stood, especially after the upheaval of the war. He had been a small child when war broke out and his life was turned upside down, particularly when the first wave of bombers destroyed much of the town and had killed his grandfather.
This is example is direct exposition. It’s directly telling the reader John’s background information via narration. Lots of novels do this, but they should be handled carefully to avoid ‘info dumping’, which this example does.
Direct exposition is necessary in every story, but it is how it’s executed that makes it effective and less like a chore to read. The best way to tackle direct exposition is to fold snippets of it into the story at appropriate moments, when the story demands it, rather than throwing huge narrative chunks at the reader from the outset.
In other words, the example above could be dissected into more relevant snippets that can be slipped into the narrative as the story unfolds, while other bits are just not necessary.  Remember, every story must move forward, so large chunks of narrative-laden exposition have the opposite effect.
Drip feed relevant information. Don’t force-feed your reader.
The other way to deliver direct exposition is to use dialogue, but that, too, needs to be done correctly, because there is nothing more annoying than two characters talking about stuff they already know, just to provide information to the reader. This is seen in almost every movie known to man – they assume the audience is stupid and end up explaining stuff we already know. As a writer, don’t make that assumption.
To deliver direct exposition in dialogue, make sure that the information you want to make known is not just a disclosure for the reader’s benefit, but also a revelation to one or more characters within the scene. For instance, in the example below, let’s assume that Frank and Amy are talking about the past and that Amy (and the reader) don’t know the full truth:
He handed Amy her coffee. ‘Did your mother ever talk about me?’
She eyed him with suspicion. ‘We don’t talk much. We’ve never been close.’
‘Let’s cut to the chase, Frank. Why did you rescue me out there on the mountain?’
He seemed reluctant. ‘I have a vested interest.’
Her eyes narrowed. What do you mean?’
‘Your father...he didn’t create that vaccine...’
This example sets up the expository revelation that the main character, Amy, isn’t aware of. But neither is the reader, so the direct exposition is necessary and relevant for that scene and that moment. It wouldn’t work if both the reader and Amy already knew all this from earlier in the story, but the reader just repeats it to make sure the reader gets the idea. This is common among new writers. You don’t have to hit your reader over the head with it.
Indirect Exposition
Good old fashioned ‘show, don’t tell’ description. It’s indirect because it is subtly woven into the narrative in a seamless way, but adds to the overall effect of the story without it becoming a burden for the reader, or a way of smacking them in the face with the obvious.
In other words, the writer shows the reader through vivid description and or careful dialogue pertinent facts about the story, for example, we’ll use John’s story from earlier:
John peered at the far wall; the picture of his grandparents shrouded in shadows. He felt the burden swell in his chest; that he teetered on the edge of financial ruin and the one thing he had left in the world – the house that his grandfather had built – might be wrenched from him. He looked away and found solace in the rain-lashed trees outside, sad that something so beautiful and ornate had survived years of German bombing, yet could vanish beneath the force of bulldozers because of a bad decision.
Rather than directly telling the reader, this shows the reader John’s predicament. It shows his sentiment, what the house means to him, how he feels about losing it, and what his grandparents mean to him. It’s subtle, effective and doesn’t need to be repeated further into the story. That’s because the reader will get it first time.
Indirect exposition works because it’s brief but subtle and moves the story forward. Direct exposition doesn’t.
If you feel the need to go into expository mode, stop and remember that the story should always be presented on a ‘need to know’ basis to the reader. So, instead of bombarding them with information from the outset, simply let them in only when they need to know.

Next week: Better writing – Creating Plot Twists