Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Text Versus Subtext

     When you’re bogged down in writing the conclusion of a novel that’s taken far too long to complete, you tend to look for inspiration (and explanations) in a myriad places. Inevitably, many of those places will have absolutely no relation to what you’re attempting (and precious little of anything else to offer you). But you’ll keep looking...if only to take your mind briefly off the fictional corner you’ve painted yourself into.

     Yes, I’m venting about my own agonizingly protracted labors. All the same, now and then the quest for insight yields something worthy of commentary...a good thing, as I’m having an increasingly hard time writing about politics, public policy, and the cavalcade of idiots, swindlers, and miscellaneous con men that we call the government in these United States.

     As it happens, fledgling writers come to me, a veteran of the indie fiction movement, every so often for advice on this or that. Some of their questions are more easily answered than others. In a great many cases, the answer is itself a question:

“Why are you writing this?”

     As it happens, it’s a question that has only one right answer – a curious thing when there are so many to which millions of answers are both acceptable and potentially constructive:

“I’m trying to illustrate X.”

     ...where X is some aspect of the eternal laws of human nature. This is the fourth, and in my opinion the most important, of the components of a worthwhile work of fiction: theme.

     Mind you, themeless works of fiction abound. Some of them make quite a lot of money. Others are what an acquaintance of long ago called “poolsiders:” something to read merely for the sake of filling otherwise idle time. But works that people will remember for a long time after having read them will have a point to make– a theme – and will succeed in dramatizing that theme through the decisions and actions of their characters.

     However, a book that hammers the reader over the head with its theme is inherently a failure. That’s the biggest demerit against Ayn Rand’s novels: never for a moment are you permitted to be anything but fully conscious of the point she’s screaming at you. The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are remarkable achievements, to be sure, but they’d have been better if she hadn’t been quite so relentless about her theme.

     So the writer must tread a middle ground: his theme must be present, and must actuate the most important decisions and actions of his Marquee characters, but the story must not be reduced to a Jeremiad that demands the reader’s explicit attention to its theme at all times. This is where the items in the title of this essay, and the effective use of the tension between them, become relevant.

     When I speak of the story’s text, I have in mind the key elements of the plot and how they bear upon the writer’s intended theme. In John Brunner’s analysis of plots and their expressions, he distinguishes among three plot families:

  1. Change that occurs because of the Marquee characters’ interactions with others;
  2. Change that occurs because of the Marquee characters’ introspection (i.e., self-examination).
  3. Change that arises when the Marquee characters confront a challenge from the world around them.

     Since a story must speak of change within and among its characters, it is quite probable that the above three plot families comprise all possible (worthwhile) plots. However, a really involving story will usually have one or more subplots: “action within the action” used for characterization and the insertion of important contextual matters.

     Subplots are an important vehicle for conveying subtext: secondary motivations and emotional currents that make the Marquee characters more real to the reader. Very few of us have a single, all-consuming motivation. Anyway, smart people avoid monomaniacs: they usually have a fistful of petitions they want you to sign, and we’re all way too busy, to say nothing of the dangers attendant upon signing anything these days. The sort of character the reader will enjoy reading about will have several motivations of importance, and some tensions among them that complicate his life.

     Consider in this connection a fairly common protagonist character: the lone-wolf hero, who habitually eschews emotional involvements. Such a hero might have any of a number of reasons for his emotional isolation. However, love and acceptance are primary drives; no one can suppress them completely and permanently. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, perhaps today’s premier lone-wolf hero, repeatedly has fleeting love affairs with extremely impressive women, only to pick up his nonexistent luggage and move on alone at the end of his main adventure. Child uses this motif in just about every Reacher novel, in part to leaven the action, but also because it’s vital to soften the character that much if he’s to be accessible to the reader.

     While this is an important tool in Lee Child’s fictional toolbox, he’s careful not to let it overwhelm him or his protagonist. Imagine the violence it would do to the reader’s expectations were Reacher to fall completely and inescapably in love, renounce his nomadic existence, flip the bird to the conflict that the reader was led to believe is the core of the plot, and settle down to a tranquil life in the suburbs. There are limits!

     I’ve just started reading a novel from a writer of “fantastical, futuristic, down-home salacious kissery.” All by themselves, those words intrigued me. I enjoy a couple of writers of science-fiction romance, and I was impressed by the author’s playful extravagance in the quoted phrase, so I bought her book. But from the very first pages of the novel, she appears to be unwilling to decide which plot thread is the text and which is the subtext. To be more specific, the romantic tensions between the protagonists, a pair of mercenary assassins who’ve contracted to capture or destroy a rare android, are given equal time to the external conflict in which they’ve embroiled themselves.

     Beware, indie writers: here there be tygers.

     A good story must have a main thread of plot development and causation: the text. Whatever subtexts the writer decides to add must be subordinated to the text. If the reader can’t decide which is which, he’ll be unable to discern “why you’re writing this.” In this trap lie the corpses of a number of SF romances.

     Indeed, much of the criticism that’s heaped upon crossbred stories – specifically, stories in the speculative genres that also embed a strong romantic current – arises from the writer’s inability or unwillingness to declare his text unambiguously. That is: “Are you writing a romance with some science fiction / fantasy / horror elements for a backdrop, or a science fiction / fantasy / horror story that includes a romantic motif?” This decision must precede setting one’s fingers to the keys.

     In our time, when brick-and-mortar bookstores have paled in importance because of Amazon and other online retailers, that decision might be a hair less important than it once was, as online retailers don’t need to “put your book on the proper shelf.” But it’s still important to reader satisfaction, and therefore to reader word-of-mouth...and therefore to how well your novel will sell.

     Need I say more?

     [Cross-posted at my fiction-promotion site.]

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