When writing prose, you should aim to have tension in every single scene. The more tension you build, the more engaging it becomes for the reader. But how, you may ask, do you place tension in every scene?
One very effective method is to use subtext. Subtext is whatever is going on beneath the surface of a scene in a story. For example, a husband and wife may be discussing who will take the kids to school, they are both being extremely polite to each other, however the reader gets the sense they are on the verge of divorce. What the characters are saying is on the surface, while their feelings are below the surface. Their feelings are the subtext. This difference between what characters say and feel is what creates the tension in the scene and the reader is engaged because they have to figure out what is really going on. So, creating a subtext creates tension, which creates a better scene.
Creating subtext is a two-fold process. So let’s begin by writing the ‘surface level’ of a scene.
1) Choose two characters. Name them.
2) Imagine the characters are in the kitchen sharing a task. For example: washing the dishes together, making cocktails, preparing food, clearing up after a party.
3) Imagine what they would say to each other and write a short scene.
NOTE: Focus on the dialogue. Deliberately try to keep the dialogue very banal and straightforward. For example: “Is there any more ice?” or “Wait a minute, I’ll need to put these glasses in the dishwasher.”
As you re-read your scene, you may be worried that it feels flat. And you would be right! A good rule of thumb for spotting flat, unengaging writing might be this: If a scene is about what a scene is about, then you’re in trouble!
Flat, surface level dialogue is called writing ‘on the nose’. This is when characters say exactly what they mean. This may be fine when a character says, “Pass the salt.” But when it comes to more complex emotional issues, people in the real world rarely say exactly what’s on their mind. In fact, people almost never explicitly talk about their problems. Instead, they misdirect, threaten or negotiate to avoid dealing with the issue head on.
This is especially true when comes to expressing sexual desire. Flirtation is all about the subtext: you want to drop heavy hints without explicitly describing your desire. The same is true of a relationship breaking up. Most arguments are triggered by surface level things like hanging up the bathroom towels, while the real issues of anger, betrayal, disappointment or emotional projection are not explicitly addressed.
Now, let’s add the second layer to the scene you wrote: the subtext.
1) Take the two characters from the scene you wrote in the First Exercise and decide what kind of sexual energy exists between them. Make notes about what is going on within each character. For example:
- A and B are in love with each other and are hoping to kiss for the first time
- A has a crush on B and is trying to find out if the feeling is mutual
- A and B were once lovers but they now despise each other.
2) Without changing the dialogue, re-write the scene from the First Exercise while suggesting the sexual energy between the characters.
NOTE: Focus on the character’s movements and on how they say their lines of dialogue. Explore ways to reveal the character’s inner worlds without naming any emotions. Make the readers feel what the characters are going through.
3) Don’t worry if scene sounds like an innuendo laden scene from a ‘Carry On…’ film! It’s all subtext. Play with the scene. Have fun! Re-write it again, keeping the same dialogue, but this time make the characters hate each other.
Jason Donald was born in Scotland and grew up in South Africa. He studied English Literature and Philosophy at St. Andrews University and is a graduate of the Glasgow University Creative Writing MA. His debut novel, Choke Chain, (Jonathan Cape) was shortlisted for the Authors Club Best First Novel Award and the Saltire First Book Award. His second novel, Dalila, (Jonathan Cape/Vintage) will be available from Jan 2017. He lives in Switzerland.
All images courtesy of Julie Lewis