Deb: Spooky Subtext

“Our most haunting dreams, no matter how hallucinatory, are
the most busily etched.” ~ Charles Baxter
Just in time for All Hallows Eve, a big full moon rose over
the mountains last night, a reminder that there’s no better time to talk about
subtext. At Halloween, the subconscious comes forward, and we confront our
fears in gruesome detail. It’s a time to celebrate haunting, which is how
subtext works in a narrative.
In The Art of Subtext, Charles Baxter explains the ways in
which subtext haunts a text: hyperdetailing of what’s not fully known, the
unbidden return of certain aspects of the story, the half-noticed and
half-heard. He describes how subtext is often rendered through super-vigilant
observers, children like Harper Lee’s Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. In
subtext, as in haunting, genuine desires are often hidden; the ghost that wants
you to go away communicates in a barely discernable voice.
As hauntings horrify, so does subtext: any unthinkable
thought qualifies, according to Baxter. Ghosts behave badly, and so
do characters caught up in subtext. “Stories thrive on bad behavior, bad
manners, confrontations, and unpalatable characters who by wish or compulsion
make their desires visible by creating scenes,” Baxter says. When it comes to subtext, think
poltergeist, not Casper with his
jovial antics.
For awhile I was working on a novel that involved a ghost,
which gave me a wonderful excuse to watch ghost shows on TV. I became quite a
snob about it: all but the Syfy Channel’s Ghost Hunter series I deemed too
hyped and far out. Week after week, I watched the Ghost Hunter team set up in
haunted places and shut out the lights. They spent the night listening,
watching, waiting, and occasionally cajoling the ghosts, expressing sympathy
for their troubles as a way of drawing them out. In a recent issue of Author
Magazine, author Jennifer Paros in “Being a Whisperer: Gentleness over Force”
discusses how writers work best this way, too, to draw out the most haunting
aspects of their prose.
Paying close attention to your text is one of the best ways
to discover and maximize the subtext that haunts it. Watch for revealed,
excessive detailing. Note the characters who refuse to go to the heart of a
matter, who insist on their blind spots and mental bubbles and thus prolong
their own anguish. Connect with your subconscious, which is often smarter than
your ego. Rely on good readers and multiple revisions to find motifs and linked
themes in your writing, and the subtext that haunts your work will make itself
Try This: Which words and phrases haunt your work? It’s
likely that there you’ll find subtext. Mark those parts, and expand.
Check This Out:  One
of my favorites in the Greywolf’s “The Art of” series in The Art of Subtext by
Charles Baxter, with chapters on The Art of Staging, Digging the Subterranean,
Unheard Melodies, Inflection, and Creating a Scene.
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