Saturday, 23 October 2010

Speaking of drama, what price "subtext"?

OK, sorry but it's not conflict today either.  Went to amateur show last night and had a realisation about the difference between amateurs and pros.  In a word, subtext.  For those not in the drama know, this means what's going on underneath the words rather than the meaning of the words - ie thoughts.

What does this have to do with writing?  It's the luxury we have in fiction.  We get to write down the thoughts.  Your playwright doesn't have this, which is why you need "interpretation" by actors and director.  They create the "show, don't tell" part.  In fiction, we have to dramatise the action with the thoughts going alongside.

That's the real meaning of "show, don't tell".  Which is why we are always talking about getting inside the character's head and telling the story from their viewpoint.  This is also where using all the senses comes in.  The reader becomes involved with what your viewpoint character is seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting (external atmosphere).  Not forgetting the sixth sense which gives you interior atmosphere or vibes.

And then we add the subtext:  what effect does the above have on the character which dictates the kind of thoughts going through the mind?  Finally, what effect do the thoughts have on the character's body or vice versa?

Example:  Sudden whoosh of cold air = shiver = riffle of fear = who's out there? = tightening of stomach = mustn't be seen = flick off the light = shortness of breath = footsteps = they're coming this way! = escalation of fear = cold of concrete as flatten against wall = holding breath = flash of bright light in face = shock = paralysis...

See what I mean?  Let it roll, one thing leading to the next.


  1. A very interesting post. According to erotic writer Morgan Hawke there's a specific order to the character's response

    1.something happens to the viewpoint character.
    2. They react phyically but instinctively--yell, groan, sigh, shiver, shudder (This comes before internal dialogue?)
    3.The 5 senses--what the character hears, sees etc
    4.Emotional reaction--thoughts or comment
    5.Response--what they do or say.

    The other character reacts (does something) then the whole thing repeats

  2. I like this. Very good analysis, thanks.