Today let’s tackle subtext in setting. Subtext, when we rip away all the frills and look at it naked, is the unique theme or style hidden within your writing. It’s the feeling and unspoken sentiments your words relay. Whether you are tackling dialogue or narrative input, subtext is present. This sub-textual feeling is often based on whichever character is offering this information.
Here’s a real world concept to help you visualize this idea. When I was a Combat Cameraman in the Navy, I would attach with combat units and document their missions. Many of those missions were nighttime raids to apprehend wanted men. Because of the equipment I had been issued, and my training with it, I could collect visual intelligence in the dark – literally. This is why I was useful.
Now that’s the background. Let’s get to the point.
During a mission the team would breach the door, flow into the building, secure the area, and sometimes someone would be there to apprehend, and sometimes it was what they call a, “dry-hole.” This meant it was empty. Regardless, I would flow into the building at the rear of the assaulting team, provide backup, and as soon as the area was secured, my rifle would hang and my cameras would come up. I would document anything and everything I could find that seemed relevant, and some things that were seemingly irrelevant.
After the mission was over and we got back to wherever we were staying, I used my portable workstation to compile photos and video into an After Action Report (AAR). The next morning/night the team, and the local combatant commander (person in charge of all operations in the region) would assemble. The team would provide a verbal AAR. Each member of the team (which ranged from 6-12) would provide a rundown of what they saw, what they gathered, what went right, and what went wrong.
This is where the idea of subtext in setting really comes into play. While many of their recollections were similar, each one was different. Each person focused on a different aspect of the mission. The guy who specialized in breaching (knocking down doors, windows, and walls) would talk about how the breaching went, then his description from inside varied. The team leader would talk about coordination, but his description from inside, again, varied. The intelligence guy would talk about artwork, posters, and murals he observed and what those meant – and so on.
Each one of their perspectives and descriptions of setting and events were limited by their own worldview. While they all talked about the same thing, each one of their perspectives was different. That’s important to realize.
Then I would push play on the video I compiled of the mission. I always found it very interesting (rewarding) when my video offered them insights they missed. I didn’t have tactical advice to offer, I didn’t specialize in breaching or tactics or the analysis of intelligence, I specialized in observation and collection. I had been trained to collect everything and anything in a very small amount of time. I didn’t speak, my video spoke for me. In this way, I was almost a omniscient observer of setting (i.e. an unbiased viewpoint of the events).
This was real life. And this also serves as a solid foundation for how we should approach writing setting from a characters point of view. Let’s play with some made up narrative from a mission. For the purpose of subtext in setting, let’s focus on the initial entry by an assault force.
*Forgive my sloppiness, I’m making up this next part as I go*
Team Leader Perspective
This site was like every site we deal with in the region. Dirt walls about 8-feet high, and a sliding metal gate closing off entry to the two-story mud and brick building. My guys were tucked up tight on the wall, stacked neatly chest to back, and safe from any potential threat. I signaled for the breach and indicated a chain was barring our path. The breacher rolled up, cut the chain with bolt cutters, and we flowed in.
Subtext: We have a viewpoint from the most experienced person on the team. The information isn’t highly detailed, because in reality, he is looking at the situation like an eagle from above. There is a feeling of confidence (i.e. this isn’t the first building like this, my guys were in a safe position, the stack was neat).
We were stacked up against a clay and sand wall. It would stop a bullet, but nothing more. I had my shoulder tight against the man in front of me and was waiting for the Team Leader to give me the signal. The Team Leader signaled for me and indicated a chain. I didn’t expect a chain, but was prepared. I pulled the bolt-cutters out of my breaching bag, moved quietly up to the gate, and gave the chain a once over. The lock was pretty fancy for this area, not something a local would have access to. I snapped the bolt cutters through the lock, slid the door open, and stepped back for the team to flow in. As they passed by I pocketed the lock.
Subtext: This viewpoint is from someone with a specific job: defeat doors, walls, and other obstacles. From his viewpoint, the wall suddenly isn’t so solid. The locked chain is not something normal. The lock is even more unique. This viewpoint, offers additional insight. And a feeling that perhaps there is something more to this site.
The takeaway. When offering your reader setting information, sometimes how something is described is more important than what is being described. Also work to make setting descriptions as unique as the people offering them. Much like the example I offered above, each fictional character is a unique person with a unique worldview.
Here are some solid resources:
- How to Improve Your Writing: Subplots and Subtext, is an article written by Brian Klems for Writer’s Digest.
- A Writer’s Guide to Active Setting, is a book written by Mary Buckham. Very solid information throughout, including specific examples of subtext.
- This article, here, from writingclasses.com is a great source of information about subtext. It offers a basic introduction to the concept, as well as some examples.
That’s it for today. Do you have any additional ideas or concepts you could share about subtext? I would love to hear them. I’m always looking to add tools to the ol’ toolbox. Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!