1. Passero
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    Passero Member

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    Subtext vs. Show, don't tell

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Passero, Feb 15, 2014.

    I'm just wondering if there is a difference between subtext and "Show, don't tell".

    Is subtext more than show, don't tell or are they the same?

    For example you can write a dialogue between people who hate each other but instead of writing that they hate each other, you show this by letting them argue and throwing words at each other so the reader understands they don't like each other.

    If that hatred is not key to the story, it just introduces some dynamics between the characters.
    Would that also be classified as subtext or would subtext need to have a bigger impact on the plot?

    Another example.
    Consider following dialogue between a couple planning their wedding, just when the neighbours
    are starting another fight:

    She: "So, what flowers do you like?"
    He: "What? I can't hear myself think."
    She: "Oh yeah, they're having a go at each other,again"
    She: "To bad they're not as happy as we are. Oh, I can't wait for our big day"
    He: "I guess..."
    She: "So, we're good with red roses?"
    He: "I prefer white to be honest. Seems more the colour for a wedding"
    She: "Seriously? That's so cliche. We'll go for the red ones"
    He: "I wonder why they are fighting now?"
    She: "Who cares, let's look at the menu. Do you think we should have something vegetarian"
    He: "Will we end up like them in a few years?"
    She: "I'm sure we won't. We're as happy as can be. Veggy dish it'll be"
    He: "If you say so."

    It should be obvious he is having some doubts and is not as happy as she is.
    Is that a better example of subtext or are they both equally valid.
     
  2. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Subtext is an element of dialogue. It is one way of adding depth to characterization in dialogue, but it is not a term used for narration. It is true, though, that subtext is a "show" technique. I don't think I would classify your example as subtext, though. It's more about the separate unspoken agendas of the characters. Subtext exists when the conversation appears to be about one thing, but in fact the actual conversation is something else. Subtext is a shared topic, not individual agendas.

    If your example made no direct references to their own relationship, their relationship would be the subtext. But because their own relationship is spoken of directly, it isn't subtext. It is text.

    An example of subtext would be your couple discussing what movie to go to. He is suggesting one romantic film after another, but she is favoring dramas with a lone protagonist. The subtext is they are really discussing their relationship. He is yearning for more closeness, but she is feeling a need to be more independent.

    As for showing/telling, it isn't that showing is inherently superior, but rather that you need to find a balance, and know which will work better in a given situation. See the link in my sig.
     
    Last edited: Feb 15, 2014
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  3. Mackers
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    Mackers Contributing Member

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    I would disagree here. Subtext is not merely confined to dialogue. In first person narratives, subtext can be key if you have a story involving an untrustworthy or devious narrator - e.g. Humbert Humbert in Lolita.

    It's an interesting device where part of the fun is in deciphering what the narrator says in terms of whether they have double-meanings, and especially in the things he omits to say.
     
  4. Passero
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    Passero Member

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    That makes a lot of sense.
    I clearly see why my dialogue isn't subtext... Why did my teacher told me it was a good example of subtext :(
     
  5. JayG
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    JayG Banned Contributor

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    Tell can only be done by the narrator. And given that the narrator is neither on the scene nor a character in the story, how can that narrator speak to the reader without all action in the story stopping and the momentum you've worked hard to build draining away?

    To describe something in detail, you have to stop the action. But without the action, the description has no meaning.” ~Jack Bickham

    It's not a mater of show vs tell, it's making the reader experience the story as the protagonist does. How does the protagonist become aware of the subtext? If our viewpoint is to be that of the protagonist, and s/he doesn't notice, but we know it because someone not in the story tells us, the protagonist can't react to it and the telling served no more purpose than telling te reader of the weather outside the house the characters never leave.
     

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