Today’s writing exercise focuses on a particular type of subtext.
A quick review –
Text operates on two levels: surface text and underlying subtext. While text represents the surface action, subtext consists of everything that’s really going on beneath that surface action—aka what’s not being said.
Identifying or explaining subtext is one thing, but actually embedding it into storytelling is quite another. In this exercise we will tackle the challenge of using subtext to create implied history in a character relationship.
To help walk you through aging a character relationship by building successive levels of implied history through the use of subtext. With every successive layer of implied character history you add, note how the resulting subtext affects the way characters interact with each other.
Two characters walk into a kitchen to find dirty dishes in the sink.
Write a short conflict-laden scene between the two characters regarding the dirty dishes and using the following situational context:
- The two characters are strangers who have just met for the very first time.
Now write a new version of the scene with the same two characters in the same situation, only with new added history:
- Roommates who hit it off for the first week, but have come to their first disagreement.
- Now roommates for six months and the dirty dishes are a regular point of conflict.
- In a relationship and living together for two years and again the dirty dishes lead to a confrontation.
- In a relationship and living together for forty years when another dish incident occurs.
Did you come up with something interesting? Let us know!
Need some help?
Having trouble with this exercise? Here’s a little help to get those creative juices flowing —
WRITING PROMPT: Create Subtext Through Implied History
Roommates who hit it off for the first week, but have come to their first disagreement.
Not wanting to come off as mean or judgmental, Judy eases her way into asking Maggie about the dishes by approaching the subject indirectly. Then, after expressing her grievance in a polite, mild form, she closes her statement with a casual “…if that’s cool with you.”
How does Maggie respond? Does she respond with the same tone and tactic? Is she irritated? Maybe she feels like she doesn’t have time for beating around the bush, so chooses to escalate the situation, setting a bad precedent for encounters to come?
Now roommates for six months and the dirty dishes are a regular point of conflict.
Sticking with Judy as our protagonist, she once again comes home to find a sink full of smelly, dirty dishes, even though (once again) it’s Maggie’s turn to clean them. Maybe Judy’s a bit of a neat freak while Maggie tends to let house hygiene slide somewhat more. While the dirty dish arguments remained somewhat polite for the first few months, they have since become increasingly forceful with raised voices, personal insults and wild gesticulations. Tempers flares. Doors slam. You get the picture.
But today is different. Her previous tactic having failed, what does she do or say differently to get her point across this time?
In a relationship and living together for two years and again the dirty dishes lead to a confrontation.
Somehow, somewhere, Judy and Maggie were able to look past their dish differences and form a long-term relationship of sorts (best friends, lovers, entrepreneurial partners—take your pick). It’s been a brutal 10-hour workday for Judy, so when she comes home to find that familiar odorous specter waiting for her in the kitchen, she’s finally had enough. Judy storms over to Maggie’s room, pounds on her door with all her might. Maggie finally emerges, ready for a fight. They scream, accuse, maybe even graduate to throwing dirty dishes at each other. Either way, the fight ends with Judy leaving for the local dive bar, vowing to move as soon as she’s saved up enough for a deposit on a new apartment.
In a relationship and living together for forty years when another dish incident occurs.
It’s been four decades since Judy and Maggie began their journey of communal living and over the years Judy has learned to pick her battles, knowing that for some things Maggie may never change. One of those things? Dirty dishes. Judy knows Maggie won’t clean the dirty dishes, even if it’s her turn. So when Judy comes home, sees the sink piled high with grimy porcelain, she already counts the confrontation as a loss. Instead of confronting Maggie about the neglect, she chooses to just suck it up and let the dishes rot. If worst comes to worst, Judy will do the dishes herself. Either way, Judy feels Maggie’s neglect of the dirty dishes is a fact she cannot change, and at this point, not worth the energy. So this time says nothing at all.