What lies beneath?

clive_owenFor me really good acting is about subtext.

Clive Owen

Strong characters and strong stories often have subtext*–the story underneath that tells us more about our humanity, in some instances, than the main story. I think this is especially true in horror stories. At the front we have something sinister, horrific, terrifying, but the subtext may explore human psychology: how loneliness drives one mad; our common, shared fears; spousal abuse; sexual abuse; any number of other themes.

When I was very young, maybe 11, I was reading a horror novel that my older sister had read. It was about a fragile woman who married the seemingly perfect man who was a (literal) monster. I remember my sister asked my about the moral subtext–which I had never understood. She explained to me that it was about abuse and mistreatment of women. I have loved reading for subtext ever since.

Subtext is sometimes joked about with horror, slashers especially. Have sex or smoke pot and the (masked) killer must impel you with a machete. The subtext is you must be chaste and pure to survive; bad people deserve to be punished.

I tend to often ask myself, “What is the subtext?” of my writing, as I also think of this in simple terms as the “moral of the story,” though it is implicit. Sometimes when I sit back and look at my writing from this angle, I say, “Oh, my, I certainly don’t want to say that.”

In the end, I think it is important to sit back and take a hard look at what might be brilliant prose, snappy dialogue, suspenseful scenes, and developed characters, and try to read the hidden message–and ask is this a moral I want to express, is it how I feel, believe.

*Subtext can refer to underlying themes or intentions, including in dialogue. I am using a narrowed definition to address underlying overall moral themes in fiction, and not character subtext, dialogue subtext, or scene subtext.

Share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s