John Mortimer said that translating opera libretti felt strange because they used subtext so little. Each aria is like a pop song where a character’s true feelings come pouring out, usually to let the audience know something important that can’t be said to the other characters.
Subtext is about things that are felt but not said. Things we keep to ourselves.
- Write a scene where one character wants something but can’t say so, and the other is unaware of it. If you already have one in your draft, have another go at it from scratch, bringing in what you learned last week about writing dialogue.
- Write monologues for a scene where one character wants something but doesn’t say, and the other character is aware of it. They can be people who live together or work together, or would like to.
FIND OUT THE TRUTH
A way to find the truth of what your character is, or is not, saying is in writing practice monologues for them before you start your drafting. It can feel circuitous when you long to get stuck into the real writing but it’s actually a short cut that can bypass several drafts for you. (I learned this trick from studying drama writing.) Take a few minutes, before you start into your chapter, to spend time with each of your characters and ask how they’re feeling just before the action in your chapter begins. Write down everything they tell you – in the usual scribble-chat way – for at least ten minutes and let them surprise you. When the writing begins to take on a life of its own, keep going as long as you can.
Have you planned an ending for the chapter? Write a monologue like this for each character just after your ending too. It will deepen the emotional truth of your writing and turn up plot solutions you may not have dreamt of.
The thing about good writing is that it’s a bit like what Tim Minchin said about happiness: the more you examine it, try to hunt it down, the more elusive it will be. Try listening to your characters in this way and see what turns up.
Go through the monos you’ve written and highlight the best lines, the ones that stand out. Those can be valuable lines of dialogue right from the heart.
Some characters have more forthcoming personalities than others. And sometimes even the most open people want to keep certain things to themselves. Have a scribble-chat with each of your characters about where they are about all this. Let them tell you what they would never tell anyone else in the world. There is the heart of that character. Your reader will sense it and want to know, eventually, what it is. Even if you didn’t think it was important to your story, it probably is.
We all do it, of course we do, we adjust the truth now and again to make ourselves look and feel better, or get out of a tight spot. Some are more successful at it than others and it’s a rare few who resist lying at all.
HOW DO WE LIE?
- In what we say,
- and do not say. Silence can be a lie too.
- What we do. Body language is a very useful writer’s tool, often more truthful than words but it can lie too, Judas’ kiss being a perfect example.
- Like silence, absence can give a false impression.
- Expert liars often have badges of excellence to give them a look of reliability or worthiness. Sadly, their sheep’s clothing can include charity work, hospitality, offers of help and positions of social authority. It doesn’t stop them being liars.
Lies have their own story arc. They change the future as well as the past. So it’s a good idea to plot your characters’ significant whoppers to keep track:
- When is the reader first aware that a character is lying?
- When are the lies found out? What is the very best place for that discovery to happen, in the best interests of your story’s stakes?
- There are many plot devices for revealing truths, ranging from emails sent to the wrong person to phones falling into the wrong hands.
- What do other characters’ reactions to lies reveal, discovered and not?
Lies are at the heart of all our interactions. Sometimes ‘white lies’ gently smooth our interactions; other lies can be profound and disruptive betrayals.
- Who are your favourite liars in fiction and in reality?
- How do they get away with it, if they do?
- How do they pull off the trick of being known liars but still likable/lovable, if they do?
- How do you feel when you discover that someone you rely on has lied to you?
- Have you ever told a lie and not regretted it? How do you feel about that?
- Have you ever told an important lie and not been found out? How do you feel about it?
- Which of the characters you are currently writing tells most lies? Why? How do the other characters react?
Your scribbles about this should perhaps hit the shredder afterwards but it’s worth taking time to work out how you feel about such a big part of human life, and how it affects your characters.