Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Plot-Subtext Integration Part 2: Ruining The Romance With Words by Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Plot-Subtext Integration Part 2:
Ruining The Romance With Words 
Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Today we'll examine a terrific novel in a picture-perfect series from Ace Science Fiction  which I just absolutely love -- but find myself gritting my teeth over certain brief scenes that are actually the core of the matter for me.

I will include "spoilers" -- we're talking here about the 11th novel in a series, and no way can you discuss that without revealing where those previous 10 have been leading. 

These scenes score an "epic fail" for me because of the sour note in the Romance thread of the plot. 


What could a writer do about it? 

A lot, and it would be easy and not make the book longer. 

Previously in this blog series on writing craft, we've discussed Dialogue with special focus on invective.

Here is a post from 2009 which opens the issue of dialogue with a broad overview.


It refers to a previous series of posts on Verisimilitude vs. Reality where we examined how "dialogue" differs from the way people just talk in real life.  Dialogue is not "real speech." Writers watch a lot of television and/or movies to develop an "ear" for the difference.

We have also discussed dialogue from other angles. It is part of characterization, pacing, plotting, foreshadowing, choosing a title, description, narrative, and of course conflict.  In fact, dialogue integrates all the techniques we've discussed here separately.

Here are some previous posts about dialogue:







The magnificent writer whose work I'm going to criticize here is Mike Shepherd, a military Science Fiction writer I admire.  He has replicated, in modern writing, the style and rhythm of the 1940's science fiction writers.  This is a tremendous feat!

I read a lot of these very old novels as I grew up, and saw nothing wrong. 

As a teen, I hated "Romance" genre novels because they were about stupid people doing stupid things for stupid reasons.  Romance has GROWN UP since then, and now we have the kick-ass heroine who won't take "no" for an answer, and we also have women who are hackers, gamers, research scientists, and even military commanders.

Mike Shepherd has created a character for an interstellar war era who comes from a line of military leaders who have risen to be crowned "King" of multiple star systems.

This family line is surnamed Longknife. 

Shepherd has created a galaxy-spanning human civilization which, as humans will do, has split into human vs. human to hold a war or three. 

In the meantime, this civilization has encountered aliens, conducted long and complex war against them, and settled the conflict (maybe not permanently, but things are looking good at the moment.)

Shepherd has extended the human life-span and created artificial intelligence computers and a material for warcraft hulls he has TRADEMARKED the name of "Smart Metal" (so other writers can't use this term.)  This is magnificent work. 

Shepherd has several series set in this vast universe, and today we are focusing on the 11th in the series, the 2013 release, Kris Longknife: DEFENDER by Mike Shepherd from Ace Science Fiction.

The previous titles in the Kris Longknife Series are, in order:
and in 2013, Defender

Slated for October 2014 is Kris Longknife: Tenacious, followed by another novel that takes up the doings of one of Kris's main foes who became an ally, then a filling in of the backstory of the war fought by Kris's father and grandfather. 

These other three people are tremendous, colorful characters -- but they don't grab my interest as Kris Longknife does.  I'll give them a try, though, because Shepherd is a great writer.

Kris Longknife starts out in Mutineer as a slip of a girl, just out of school and taking the stage in her life.

Her ancestors are Kings, her whole family has a reputation for making trouble, for getting people killed, for doings that have the massive signature of Pluto Transit Events.

Natal Pluto position in a birth chart is one of several signatures necessary to produce Fame, Infamy, A Place In The History Books (not a footnote size one either).  Pluto magnifies whatever it forms an aspect with -- hard aspects produce vast results that get noticed.

If you've followed my discussions on how a writer can use Astrology to structure a character or plot that readers can grasp at a glance, you know that these natal chart formations actually form family-signatures -- yes, astrological charts show family tendencies.

I used that well known (but unnoticed by most people) fact to create the Farris Family Reputation ("Every Farris Makes Headlines At Least Once In Life") for the Sime~Gen Series. 

Said another way, "The Apple Doesn't Fall Far From The Tree." 

This inheritable factor is the subject of all kinds of folk-sayings, and is just common knowledge.  So writers can use this to plot multi-generation tales.

I doubt Mike Shepherd has studied Astrology, but he has portrayed that Pluto driven natal chart feature of The Warrior-King perfectly. 

Kris Longknife starts out at the beginning of this series with people trying to kill her -- assassinate might be a more accurate term, considering she's scion of this Royal family.

Along the way, she develops a sizzling-hot relationship with her bodyguard who routinely saves her life -- she does her share of saving, too.  In fact, she saves planets, civilization, humanity, even aliens -- big things. 

The point of view stays nicely inside Kris's head, and we see all these problems through her eyes -- we see how she muddles through, assesses and takes risks, congratulates herself when she makes a good call, and aches all over when she gets people killed.

But that's the "Longknife" pattern -- people standing anywhere near her get killed, but she survives (without doing anything to make that happen.)

The few people who do stand near her and survive with her become our friends and win our affections, too.  They are well drawn characters with depth, focus, and values we can admire.

So though this series is mostly about battle strategy and tactics, about politics, revolution, (or revolution thwarted), assassinations, face-saving, and engineering miracles on the fly, all these larger-than-life things are happening TO very real, very deep and sensitive Characters. 

And all of this magnificence is accomplished despite really bad dialogue writing.

What's bad about it?

It is what Blake Snyder labels (in his SAVE THE CAT! series on screenwriting) "on the nose" dialogue. 

"On the nose" is the opposite of "sub-text."

"On the nose" means when you "hit the nail on the head" or say something explicitly, in spades, flat out factual recitation.  "On the nose" means no allusions, allegories, symbolism, misdirection, sarcasm, white lies, but just meaning exactly what you say.

"Subtext" on the other hand means that the utterance contains vocabulary, subject matter, and perhaps plot references (i.e. references to actions under consideration) that have absolutely nothing to do with what the Characters are actually discussing and they both know it.

Good romance is rife with "subtext" and resorts to only one on-the-nose utterance -- which is that final, angst-ridden admission of a by-then-obvious truth, "I love you."

The writing craft term "subtext" means that the "text" (what is actually being said) is "sub" or under that which seems to be the subject under discussion.

Here's a snatch of subtext dialogue from the screenplay BASIC INSTINCT:



It is beautifully done in a Santa Fe motif.  She goes to a
bedroom of the living room.


Nick sits down on a couch facing the bedroom she's walked
into.  Gus sits across from him, his back to the bedroom.
There is a coffee table between them.  She leaves the
bedroom door halfway open.

An old newspaper is on the coffee table them.  Nick reaches
for it.  The headline says:  VICE COP CLEARED IN TOURIST
SHOOTINGS.  A headline underneath says:  GRAND JURY SAYS
SHOOTINGS ACCIDENTAL.  There is a photograph of Nick.

He stares at the paper.

        CATHERINE (O.S.)
    How long will this take?

Nick puts the paper down on the coffee table.  He is lost
in his thoughts.  Gus picks the paper up.

        (looks up)
    I don't know.

Nick, facing the half open bedroom door, sees a mirror near
the wall of the bedroom.  The mirror reflects her in the
other corner of the bedroom.  She is taking her clothes
off.  He stares.  She strips down.  He sees her back. She
has a beautiful body.  Naked, she puts a dress on.  She
doesn't put any underwear on.

    Do you always keep old newspapers

        CATHERINE (O.S.)
    Only when they make interesting

And she is suddenly out of the bedroom.  She stands there,
smiles.  They look at each other a long beat.

    I'm ready.

They get up, head out.

    You have the right to an attorney.

    Why would I need an attorney?


They sit in the front; she is in the back.  The car goes
over the winding, two-lane Mt. Tamalpais road.

The fog is heavy.  It's starting to rain.  We see the beach
far below.

    Do you have a cigarette?

    I don't smoke.

    Yes you do.

    I quit.

She smiles, looks at him.  A beat, and he turns away.
Another beat, and she lights a cigarette up.

    I thought you were out of

    I found some in my purse; would you
    like one?

He turns back to her.

    I told you -- I quit.

    It won't last.

A beat, as she looks at him, and then he turns away.

    You workin' on another book?

    Yes I am.

    It must really be somehtin' --
    makin' stuff up all the time.

He watches her in the rearview mirror.

    It teaches you to lie.

    How's that?

    You make it up, but it has to be
    believable.  They call it
    suspension of disbelief.

    I like that.  "Suspension of

He smiles at her in the mirror.

    What's your new book about?

    A detective.  He falls for the
    wrong woman.

He turns back to her.

    What happens to him?

She looks right into his eye.

    She kills him.

A beat, as they look at each other, and then he turns away
from her.  Gus watcher her in the rearview mirror.

----------end quote--------------

You can get the whole screenplay (which showcases this technique throughout, as do almost every movie or TV Series episode today) at

Notice how they're talking about smoking, and a book she's writing -- but that's not what they're talking ABOUT.  The subtext is all about Relationship -- about flirting -- about what they might be or become to each other. 

The REAL conversion is off-the-nose.

Now, back to the military Science Fiction novel with a bit of a love-story squeezed in between battle scenes, or frantic preparation for battle.

In this 11th book in the series about Kris Longknife, the issue that has kept Kris and her bodyguard apart during 10 novels is solved by a woman thought to be dead a long time ago, Kris's grandmother, also a ship's captain, thought lost in action.

Turns out, she led her battle squadron off in a chase across a galaxy, managed to escape her pursuers, just barely, and couldn't get home.  So she set up a colony on a world already occupied by some bird-like aliens with whom she hacked out a treaty of sorts. 

The issue Kris and her bodyguard have been dealing with is Navy Regulations against "fraternization" -- that is an anti-bullying regulation that is there to try to prevent a "superior" officer from trading good will and privileges for sexual favors from someone of lesser rank.

So those in the same chain of command who are (whatever) number of ranks apart aren't allowed to have a Relationship.

Kris's grandmother points out that because of shifts in titles and appointments, there were a few hours when Kris and her bodyguard were not in the same chain of command, and that the grandmother is empowered to conduct weddings.

They throw together a wedding ceremony using borrowed clothing, and well rehearsed wedding participants, and take off for a honeymoon at a coastal resort on the planet.

The romantic interlude is (appropriately) mostly nudity and sex, in very high contrast to the usual scenes in these 11 novels -- all very well written sex fantasy that keeps the characters in character.  But the dialogue lacks that "subtext" technique illustrated above.

Then the novel continues into another mission, more space-battle-tactics, arriving home to more frantic battle-preparations as great-big-bad-alien-killers approach, and a final battle where Kris dredges up some old Earth sea/air battle tactics.

Between long narrations of how they can stretch their resources to defend this solar system from the approaching aliens, Kris and her new husband have several scenes alone.

The issue of "fraternization regs" is raised, and Kris calls a conference of her staff leaders.  They rewrite the regs for the sake of morale, so there are a couple more sex interludes and a few times on the space station they build in orbit, they go out to a cafe for dinner. 

On page 316, near the end of the book, before the aliens arrive to try to take the planet, they go out to a restaurant on the space station (which now serves food that's mostly native to the planet).

Jack is the bodyguard/husband, Kris has 3 titles, one of which is Admiral.  Sal is Jack's A.I. computer and Nellie is Kris's A.I. computer.


I'm having dinner with my husband. Right!

"Do you know what's special about today?" Jack said, reaching across the table for her hands.

"Besides the cavalry arriving to either rescue us or go down in our defeat?"

"Forget the job," Jack growled.  "Today is our second anniversary.  It's been two months since we let Granny Rita talk us into taking the plunge.  Do you regret it?"

"Never," Kris said, squeezing Jack's hand.  "Two months.  I totally forgot about it.  I can hardly keep track of the time.  How'd you do it?"

"I had Sal do it for me."

"Nelly, why didn't you tell me?"

"I didn't know it mattered to you.  I know it's a very romantic thing for you humans.  I just didn't know if it would include you, Kris."

"Yes, I'm human, and yes, I'm romantic, at least for Jack, and Jack, why are you doing all the girl things and me doing all the stupid boy stuff?" 

"You're the admiral," he said with a shrug.

Kris let out a sigh.  "I don't like that, Jack."

"But you have to.  That's what Longknives do.  They do what they have to dol."

"Well, I want to do more.  Stuff I want to do as well as what I have to do." 

--------end quote---------

Dinner arrives, and they talk about the food and then ...

"You amaze me, Jack.  You remember our anniversary and do it enough ahead of time to talk my granny ut of the fruits of her garden."

"Oh, I didn't talk her out of anything, it was pure horse-trading.  My Marines will deliver a truckload of fish offal to her and all her neighbors' gardens.  Nobody gets anything free from your granny."

------end quote----------

Note how dialogue is substituted for narrative, and information is conveyed in TELL rather than SHOW.

Yes, it's fun banter, and yes I do love the styling -- and yes, after all these years of reading these novels, it's fabulous to "hear" them speak to each other so frankly -- but the dialogue is stilted, stiff, servicable, filling an interlude between lovingly detailed, subtly crafted battle scenes with some "words" that indicate they're still in love after all they've been through. 

Off-the-nose dialogue is show-not-tell -- it illustrates rather than states, allowing the reader to deduce what it means, and therefore the reader comes to participate in the story.

OK, so what CAN a writer do to finesse around these awkward moments, creating engrossing dialogue, quotable quotes, and

Why is there no way I can just rewrite that dialogue sequence, changing some words, restyling it, and bring it up to snuff for a modern Romance reader?

Here's why: the problem does not lie within this dialogue itself.  The writer is in a corner, there's a word-length limit, there has to be room for that final battle scene preceded by Kris sweating out what kind of battle plan might give her out-numbered force a chance.

The problem with this dialogue scene lies way back on page 66 to 86.

The problem here lies in the honeymoon scenes.

For this scene to be "off the nose" that honeymoon scene had to have additional "plants" inserted, images, symbols, and other devices that this scene could be fabricated from.

That inserted material had to be alluded to in other snatched moments -- perhaps gifting Kris with a certain flower on her access screen when she gets up in the morning, playing games with the calendar, etc. 

Since this is military science fiction, and this volume consists of more "logistics" problems than it does battle-tactics problems, the sexual innuendo and metaphore material has to be fabricated from shared combat experience (scenes missing here -- they don't work-out together, they don't fight each other, (they do shower together), they don't have a hand-to-hand-combat scene where the two of them are fighting an enemy.

There was opportunity for such together-scenes as their survey of the planet found other races of the natives who were not-so-friendly.  They could have found themselves in hand-to-hand-combat against unfriendly natives that they contrive to befriend.

This volume does have the more combative natives accepting positions in the space Navy to defend their planet, and Kris does consider promoting one of them to her personal staff.  So that story is there, in the background -- and was just passed over as a tell not show. 

The honeymoon scene could have been sliced in half to make room for a side-by-side or back-to-back combat scene which would provide the text to cover the sub-text in this 2-months-anniversary scene. 

There is the sub-genre of Action Romance, and this series of novels fits the description perfectly. 

The Longknife series is about combat, and Kris achieves results in combat that are ostensibly pure luck. 

There is a reason we have the term Sexual Politics and Battle of the Sexes.

This volume of the Kris Longknife series is about sexual politics.

But that issue is told not shown.

Kris's battle-commander results are LUCK.  Some characters resent her for that, others admire her, and the sensible ones stay as far away from her physical person as they can -- but they know which is the winning side in any conflict before it happens.

Watch this video of a veteran attributing combat results to luck:


Read Kris Longknife: DEFENDER, and watch for ways to restructure the early parts of the novel so that this crucial Romance Dinner Scene comes out with all the most powerful part of the content in subtext. 

Now find where you can use that same technique to restructure your work so that the dialogue stays "off-the-nose." 

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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