Monday, November 22, 2010

Ghosts of Subtext by Bonnie Grove

Happy Manuscript Monday, dear readers! Annette here. Today we're in for a treat. Bonnie Grove is here to discuss subtext--a rich tool for layering up your fiction. She'll return twice next week--once with another article on subtexts and once on Writer's Journey Wednesday with some writing tips. But for now, check out this great piece on subtext in fiction. Enjoy!

Ghosts of Subtext
by Bonnie Grove

Great fiction is haunted. Between the words linger the ghosts of human love, hunger, hope, suffering, self-doubt. They whisper in the reader’s ear, yet when the reader attempts to locate the source, it vanishes. The reader returns to the passage that so moved her, revisits the sweet ache, waits for the ghost to speak again. And they dance; the reader and fiction’s ghost, whose name is subtext.

How does the writer go about chasing ghosts around the page when there is enough to worry about inside the solid plot and characters already running amok? And why should we fuss with subtext when the message of our story rings like church bells on a cold morning? And what is subtext anyway?

Charles Baxter, in his slim volume The Art of Subtext refers to it as “the unspoken soul matter” of a story. A phrase that captures the essence, if not the substance. Another favorite description is the moving picture image of a dinner party where everyone discusses the people who aren’t there. Those not present are palpable in their absence. It is as if they were there.

Most discussion of subtext in fiction focus on it use within dialogue. This harkens to its theatrical counterpart where actors dramatize their lines so as to infuse texture and human vulnerability to their part. This is the simplest form and usage of subtext, a handy place to start (but beware, as with all the instruments in your writing tool box, the important skill to master is knowing when to use it, and when not to. Subtext in dialogue is best used sparingly, and in tune with characters and plot).

Subtext in dialogue is intuitive to the writer. The tool feels familiar in your hand. Here is an exercise with which to impress yourself: Your character speaks to someone, “I don’t understand why you’re arguing with me.” Craft a scene that lasts as long as it takes to speak this one line. Then, infuse the line with a dialogue tag--in this case, an explanation of how the line is spoken. How have you imagined this line would be said?

Think about the same line of dialogue, but infuse the line with a ghost. Your character speaks the identical line, but with the subtext--the unspoken soul matter of: “I want to make you to love me.” How has subtext altered your dialogue tag?

The subtext has flavored the scene. From direct confrontation:

Arms folded, she eyed her son, “I don’t understand why you’re arguing with me.”

To the ache of uncertainty:

She picked up the sweater from where he had tossed it on the floor, pressed it to her lips. “I don’t understand why you’re arguing with me.”

The subtle differences, over the space of a story or novel, add up to the story lingering in the mind of the reader long after the last word is read.

Next week, we’ll look at two other ways to employ this tool: staging, and using character attention and inattention.

Talking to the Dead: A Novel by Bonnie Grove (David C. Cook, publisher)

Twenty-something Kate Davis can’t seem to get this grieving widow thing right. She’s supposed to put on a brave face and get on with her life, right? Instead she’s camped out on her living room floor, unwashed, unkempt, and unable to sleep—because her husband Kevin keeps talking to her.

Is she losing her mind?

Kate’s attempts to find the source of the voice she hears are both humorous and humiliating, as she turns first to an “eclectically spiritual” counselor, then a shrink with a bad toupee, an exorcist, and finally group therapy. There she meets Jack, the warmhearted, unconventional pastor of a ramshackle church, and at last the voice subsides. But when she stumbles upon a secret Kevin was keeping, Kate’s fragile hold on the present threatens to implode under the weight of the past…and Kevin begins to shout.

Will the voice ever stop? Kate must confront her grief to find the grace to go on, in this tender, quirky first novel about embracing life.


Bonnie Grove started writing when her parents bought a typewriter, and she hasn’t stopped since. Trained in counseling, theology and psychology, she developed and wrote strength-based social programs for families at risk while landing articles and stories in anthologies. She is the award winning, and internationally published author of Talking to the Dead: a Novel. She and husband, Steve, have two young children and one small dog. They make their home in Saskatchewan.


  1. Great article, Bonnie! This is something we do intuitively as writers, but I love how you help us take a second look and be more purposeful about it. :D Thanks for visiting! Looking forward to your article next Manuscript Monday--more on subtexts!

  2. I agree, Annette, when it comes to subtext in dialogue, it's almost a sixth sense. We know to do this. That's why it's a great place to start talking about it.
    Next time, I'll walk us through it's uses in places that aren't as intuitive in writing, but are more effective overall. As I mentioned in this post, we don't want to overplay subtext in dialogue or we end up defusing much of that character's interest and arc.


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