Creating Setting and Subtext in Your Fiction

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The following is a guest post by Writer's Digest author Mary Buckham, author of A Writer's Guide to Active Setting: How to Enhance Your Fiction with More Descriptive, Dynamic Settings. She is also the author of the USA Today bestselling Invisible Recruits series, which has been touted for its unique voice, high action, and rich emotion. Mary lives in Washington State with her husband and, when not crafting a new novel of her own, she travels the country researching settings and teaching other writers.

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Subtext is not what we say in our story but how we say it. It’s the secondary messages we give our readers. The ones we want them to understand without telling them directly. Subtext adds depth and complexity. It builds an experience that remains in the readers’ awareness.

Subtext is the underlying message. Dialogue or action may tell you that all appears to be fine, but the reader understands from previous events that the subtext is saying something else. For example, Arnold Schwarzenegger says, “I’ll be back,” indicating he’ll be returning; the subtext: it’s a threat.

As readers, we most often see subtext used in dialogue, when a character says one thing but their body language or internal dialogue is giving a different message. This adds conflict and increases tension on the page, raises questions, and compels the reader to keep turning pages.

Many writers don’t realize the power of subtext in setting. It’s an underutilized tool that can add enormously to the reader’s experience of a story.

How?

One way setting can add that all-powerful subtext is to show underlying emotion that the character is feeling.

Let’s look at an example of how a mystery/suspense writer adds subtext. A female character is about to conduct an interview to uncover facts about a potential murder that happened on or near a secondary character’s property. With no other context, can you sense the outcome to the female character’s scene goal?

The hotel interior was exactly as promised by its exterior. Threadbare carpet with yellowed plastic runner, linoleum-covered counter, wooden grid for keys and letters, cracked plaster walls. The air smelled of mold, dust and years of cigarette smoke and sweat.

– Kathy Reichs, Grave Secrets

What if Reichs had written:

The hotel interior was exactly as promised by its exterior. Pleasant mass-produced paintings of charming cottage, families playing at the seashore and Norman Rockwell feel-good promises. The air smelled of lemon freshener, everything spic and span while still being homey.

Different word choices, different focus for the POV character. What the character sees and experiences leads the reader to expect a different outcome for the upcoming interview. The author does not tell the reader that the POV character doesn't expect to find answers to her questions in the first example, she shows it using setting as subtext.

A Writer's Guide to Active Settingprovides a straightforward,
easy-to-follow approach to utilizing setting as a tool for enhancing
other elements of your writing. By providing examples from authors
in varying genres, author Mary Buckham gives novice writers and experts
alike the tools they need to revolutionize their writing.

WritersGuidetoActiveSetting

A different way to create subtext via setting is to foreshadow complication or conflict. The POV character in the following adult fantasy novel is on an involuntary military mission. If the author was less skilled in using setting as subtext he might have written something like this:

We reached the objective where the local inhabitants were unaware of what we were about to do.

There’s a hint of foreshadowing but only because the reader has already been told what’s about to happen. There’s no emotion, no foreshadowing/tension that keeps the reader turning pages. So let’s look at how the author uses setting as subtext.

Above it, all at once, the claustrophobic blackness of cave-dark gave way to the blackness of a different sort: a moonless night, with scratchy scarves of cloud being drawn by the wind across ancient, disaffected stars.

—Gregory Maguire, Son of a Witch

Because we’re experiencing what the POV character is experiencing, this setting ramps up the tension. We sense something bad is about to happen.

Of these previous two passages which one would keep you reading?

By using setting to establish the emotional mood of a scene, the author guides a reader deeper into the story. This is subtext. It raises questions and ratchets up tension. The author gives the reader a compelling reason to keep reading. He doesn’t assume that just because the reader is a certain number of pages into the story that she'll keep reading.

Let’s look at another example, this one from a futuristic YA novel. The POV character—a young woman who is about to break away from everything she’s known, everything she’s fought so hard to be a part of—is weighing the pros and cons of her decision. The opening to this chapter may have been written differently in a less-skilled hand. Something like this:

She wondered if she should really leave. If she wouldn’t be more comfortable, less challenged, just by staying put and having fun with her friends.

The above example raises story questions, but these questions aren't anything that wasn't already raised in the story. The author wants to show that the decision is not an easy one. Let’s see how he approached this chapter opening:

Overnight, the first freeze of winter had come. The trees shone like glass, bare branches alight with icicles. Glittering black fingers stretched across the window, cutting the sky into sharp little pieces.

Tally pressed one hand against the pane, letting the chill leak through the glass and into her palm.

– Scott Westerfeld, Pretties

Look at the author’s key words that let the reader know this decision is not an easy one—freeze, glass, bare, glittering, black, cutting, pieces, chill. There's a consistent message that uses subtext to show a reader something..

Subtext is a powerful tool. And using subtext in your setting is a subtle but effective way to lead your reader deeper into your story. Add this to the arsenal of your writing weapons.

What was the last book you read where the setting pulled you deeply into the story?

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