Eons ago, at my first SCBWI Prairie Writer’s Day Conference, I heard the popular writing tip “show, don’t tell.” That catch phrase should be writing advice to live by, except this wide-eyed newbie didn’t understand how to “show.”
I jumped to the conclusion “show means slow.” To me, telling was a summary that skipped the reader ahead in time. Showing must then mean slowing down to flesh out a scene. True, but that was only half of the equation.
The other half of the showing equation was missing from my writing: emotion. Adding emotional depth to the scene makes a connection with the reader. In his book The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How To Write the Story Beneath the Surface, Donald Maass said, “One secret ingredient behind effective showing can be summed up in this word: subtext. When there’s a feeling we’re not being told, but it is evident anyway, that underlying feeling is the subtext.”
The concept of subtext finally solved the equation for me, or so I though. I had decoded the “show, don’t tell” advice, ten years after I first heard it. Yet my writing was still uneven. There was emotional depth in some scenes, but none in others. The reason: my understanding of subtext was only in terms of dialogue.
In her weekly e-mail newsletter, author Sarah Aronson discussed three levels of dialogue: “what is said, what is unsaid, and what is unsayable.” To me, the unsayable was the subtext – the only type of subtext I had figured out how to write. That meant my reader could only emotionally connect to my protagonist during scenes with dialogue. My writing remained uneven.
I discovered the final variable in the equation while reading The Emotional Craft of Fiction. Maass suggests writers “Add a detail of the setting that only your protagonist would notice, or that everyone notices but your protagonist sees in a unique way.” The key to showing subtext through description is the setting detail only your protagonist notices, but the writer must open the door for the reader by establishing why that setting detail matters.
From Andrew Stanton’s TED Talk, the “unifying theory of two plus two” is one method to establish why that setting detail matters. Readers enjoy figuring things out for themselves. “Don’t give them four, give them two plus two.” Don’t tell the reader how the protagonist feels about the setting detail she notices. Let the reader put two and two together so he can feel the subtext emotion himself.
Holly Black used setting description to show subtext in The Darkest Part of the Forest. Hazel’s mother came home from a thrift shop one day with a sword for her brother Ben and a baby doll for her. The problem: Hazel was the one who dressed as a knight to explore the forest, the one who desperately wanted a sword.
Ben’s sword beat any stick Hazel used to fight him. Frustrated, she noticed a machete in the tool shed and whacked the new sword with it before running off into the forest. In this scene, Black gives the reader two: Hazel’s jealousy of her brother’s sword.
After an incident in the forest where Ben has to save Hazel because her machete is an inadequate weapon, Hazel describes this setting:
“Hazel’s gaze went to the bank where she’d fallen, the gouges her scrambling had made in the mud, Adam’s rotting body and her dog’s limp one beside it, the buzzing of flies in the air above them, and something else, something that shone in the sunlight like a hilt. A knife? Had Adam brought a weapon with him?”
In a scene with a dead child and a dead dog, Hazel notices the glint of sunlight on metal. Black gives the reader two: Hazel cares more about finding a weapon so she can become a real knight than the death of her own pet or friend.
The subtext in this scene is not relief at surviving the hag attack or horror at the death before her. Two plus two adds up to four. Hazel’s jealousy of her brother’s sword plus her desire to find her own weapon at any cost add up to hope. Hazel hopes she’s finally found her sword. And she has. The reader is now emotionally connected and ready to root for Hazel on her quest to become a real knight who fights the evil of the forest.
In my own writing, I was stuck on a scene where my protagonist is alone in a town car. I needed the town car scene for pacing, but there was no one in the car for her to talk to. No way for the reader to understand how she was feeling. Or was there?
I had already given the reader two in an earlier scene:
Still the crowd chaffed me. I didn’t find an open patch of pavement to hit my stride until the Wrigley Building, the historic tower with the giant clock face. Probably the only non-digital clock still ticking in all of Chicago – other than Dad’s watch on my wrist.
My protagonist, Kat, notices a ticking clock. She is running out of time. The subtext is anxiety. Kat is also wearing her dad’s watch. The reader knows from an earlier statement that his funeral was four months ago. The reader wonders why this teenager is on the run so soon after her father died. An emotional connection begins to form.
Kat was right to be anxious. Two mob goons catch her and toss her in the back of a town car. She’s being forced to visit the mob boss. The reader needs to know how Kat feels about this meeting. Yet she’s alone. Dialogue can’t reveal the subtext. Instead, I needed to use description of the setting to convey subtext. What was the item only Kat would notice in the town car? A bottle of her father’s favorite liquor.
I grabbed the bottle to check the label. I’d expected Schlitzer. Der didn’t settle for anything less than the best. To him, Deutsch ist am besten. The older and purer the better.
Scapa. The label said Scapa.
The bottle trembled in my hand. I read the word again, because that couldn’t be right. Der hated Scotch, wouldn’t lay hands on anything Scottish, except maybe Chrissy.
The cork squeaked as I wiggled it back and forth, prying it out of the bottleneck. Who’d uncorked Scotch in this car with no door handles?
Two plus two equals four. Kat’s anxiety plus finding an open bottle of her father’s favorite liquor in the back of the mob town car with no door handles adds up to a suspicious death. The reader feels the subtext: suspicion. The reader worries Kat is being taken to a mob boss who may have been involved in her father’s death.
Now this scene in the town car matters. The subtext of the protagonist’s setting description has forged a connection between the reader and the protagonist.