Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Plot Subtext Integration Part 1

I'm going way out into uncharted waters here to invent, whole cloth out of nothing, an entirely new term, maybe a new concept, in writing craft.

I'm terming it Plot-Subtext Integration.

Plot you all know by now is what I call the sequence of EVENTS in a story, the "because line" of what people do, what that causes to happen, and what other people do about that happening. 

Story is all about what the characters learn from the events that happen -- to make a story work, a writer has to create Events that happen TO the characters, i.e. plot events that drive the story, which then causes character motivations that drive them to act creating further plot events.  That is the integration of plot and story.

If you missed this post, look through it now:

The key ingredient, you'll notice, is character at the nexus of plot, story, conflict, -- all of the moving parts of the composition come together at character. 

Sometimes in SF (even Science Fiction Romance) you have "characters" who are machines (R2D2 or Data), and characters who are actually Forces of Nature. 

But what makes all this interesting, what makes it a story, is how all these separate ingredients interact. 

Characters act generating plot, and characters speak revealing story -- sometimes they speak to themselves inside their own heads. 

Characters speaking is dialogue.  We studied dialogue, and will come back to it in the future. 


One key ingredient in great dialogue is subtext.

What exactly is subtext?  It's what the character really means to say, but does not or will not exactly put into words. 

In sarcasm, for example, the character says one thing and means the opposite.  A prime example is the word, "Wonderful!" delivered with just that sarcastic intonation.  The un-wonderfulness is the subtext while the actual text is the word WONDERFUL.

Very often subtext is carried on a change of subject:

"So when will you invite me to the Opera?"
"Would you like more coffee?" 

Ostensibly, the subject is fishing for a date -- the subtext is "I want this." and "I'm not ready for this."  Or depending on the context, and the business (for example, texting while talking) the actual subject, the subtext, could be almost anything.  Consider if the exchange were between two spies trying to seduce each other.

So the "subtext" is what the dialogue is really about, and the text can be ostensibly about almost anything else other than the actual subject.

I've rarely seen the term "subtext" applied to elements other than dialogue.

Dialogue can be wordless -- coded into actions, gestures -- one staple of Hollywood films used to be smoking a cigarette, a series of actions that defined character, gave indication of the character's mood, station in life, relationship to the other characters, etc.  Consider the cigarette holder.  Consider the very long cigarette holder.  Watch some old movies if you've missed this.  It's called (in screenwriting) "business" -- the things actors do to communicate subtext.

Well, if subtext can be encoded into cigarette smoking - i.e. actions - then it can be a  component of PLOT.

However, I never realized that before I read this book:

And as I read this "can't put it down" book by an author I love and admire no end, Tanya Huff, it suddenly hit me that the plot lacks subtext.

It hit me only by its absence.

I thought I'd be the only one to notice, but one of the comments on Amazon which gave the book only 3 stars and became the most critical review, noted just in passing that somehow the plot seems to wander.


I think I've found the reason for this review/comment. 

Now this is a good book by a very good writer, and is well worth its Kindle price.

It reads like a story that she just had to tell, just had to write out, scene after scene that's just engrossing, characters revealing themselves -- it reads like raw material that was just typed out.  Then there were a lot of typed words, so the author looked at it and decided it had to be a book because to tell the rest of this story, there has to be this character development.  So she searched her worldbuilding notes and decided to use an Environmental activist group to generate some kind of plot.

Why do I think that's the tacked-on element (and I haven't asked her! I'm just guessing.)?  Because environmental activism is not argued from all sides in the plot. 
When I got to that point in my analysis, I realized that the THEME (what the novel is really about) has to be the SUBTEXT of the PLOT. 

That's the relationship between Theme and Plot discussed at such depth in the 6-post series in January 2013 titled Theme-Plot Integration and all about how to use FALLACY as a plot generating device.

Here are the links to those posts, and there is a 7th one in that series coming March 26, 2013.







Once plot and theme are fully integrated, you have an inseparable whole it's impossible to "analyze" (i.e. take apart into its components) because the theme becomes the subtext of the plot.  The theme is what the Events of the plot "really mean" not what they "say they mean." 

Usually, that "sub" level of an artistic composition comes from the artist's own "sub" level - the subconscious. 

A book without such a sub-level is extremely rare in print -- and it is even more rare from a writer who is fully steeped in her craft.  That's why this example of a novel with a subtext-less PLOT is so valuable.

The Wild Ways has plenty of subtext in the dialogue, in the characters, in their learning and practicing of their musical arts -- and in their advancement in their magical application of their musical arts.

It has subtext in family relationships, and all the dialogue with the "Aunties" (power-users among the magical family) and every other aspect of this novel is perfect.

That is what makes the absence of plot-subtext easy to identify.

I can't tell you, "Don't write like this," because obviously there's a nice, huge, market for this type of composition. 

But I do suggest that if you do it, you do it with conscious deliberation and, if you will, "Malice Aforethought."

Note also that it very likely won't work for readers who have not read the prior book where the worldbuilding is set out with great care to crafting the theme.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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