Monday, November 29, 2010

Subtext in Fiction: Staging by Bonnie Grove

Happy Manuscript Monday, dear readers. (Annette here.) Hope you had a very nice Thanksgiving weekend! Today we're welcoming back Bonnie Grove as she continues her series on subtexts in fiction. In our email interactions, Bonnie mentioned enjoying delving into the deeper concepts in fiction writing. I've really appreciated that, too. How about you? Enjoy!

Subtext in Fiction: Staging
by Bonnie Grove

Last week we talked about subtext in dialogue. This was the place to start to understand subtext and its influence on the reader. An advanced look at subtext focuses on staging.

Arthur Plotnik said of staging, “Every storyteller invents stage business—the actions, gestures, and thoughts that surround dialogue and sometimes leak into the dialogue itself. Stage business–or "shtik" as I call it—gives dimensions of space, time, and texture to the linear output of talking heads.”

Many writers shortcut this kind of staging, opting for generic tags; actions such as nodding, head shaking of any sort, blinking, smiling, furrowing of brows, et al., that don’t move plot, deepen understanding of a character, or add meaning to the scene. If you are unfamiliar with the various shtik available to you as a writer, read Art’s full article by clicking the link above before reading further here.

Refer to your subtext mini-scene from last time where the single line of dialogue is, “I don’t understand why you are arguing with me.” Try mixing and matching different bits of staging to this line (speech, action, absolute, thought, or stage direction). Then ask yourself: 1) How does this tag deepen character? 2) Does it communicate meaning beyond the stated text? 3) How does it do this?

In addition to shtik, staging can also refer to the micro-setting in which a scene (or even an entire novel) takes place. A room in a house, an office space, a particular spot in a public park, for example. Charles Baxter, in his book The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot explains the marriage of subtext and staging, “Staging in fiction involves putting characters in specific strategic positions in the scene so that some unvoiced nuance is revealed . . . It [staging + subtext] shows us how the characters are behaving, and it shows us what they cannot say through the manner in which they say what they can say.”

In her novel Gilead, Marilynne Robinson creates Reverend John Ames, elderly and ill who writes a journal to his too-young son in hopes of imparting something of himself to the boy who will grow up without his father. Throughout the novel the reader is acutely aware of the sub-textual presence of time–time’s passing, lost, wasted, and yearning for more. Robinson uses staging subtext to build the setting of time’s passing inside John Ames’s mind, which spills onto every other part of his existence.

"And memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either. It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing. I mean, that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve."

The thread of yearning for what cannot have–more time–runs throughout the novel in subtext.

Next time we will visit subtext within our characters via attention and inattention. (Look for this post in January.)


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.


Talking to the Dead
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.

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