Monday, February 2, 2009

The Beauty of Subtext

I recently watched a movie in which I expected entertainment. I got it. I expected humor. The story delivered. Romance. Check that.

What I didn't expect was to, weeks later, still be thinking about the characters. I didn't expect to remember the last lines of the movie. Who remembers those? And yet, the subtext in that dialogue left an indelible impression on me.


The ending to this movie was just incredible. After stewing on the why for a few days, I realized that the depth and allure of that final scene and its dialogue could be traced back to subtext.

Let me set it up.

Through extraordinary circumstances, loner dentist meets wounded heroine. The heroine has a sore tooth that the dentist hero offers to take a look at. They become friends. He makes her laugh (which is an awesome part of the storyline) and she helps him to see how he hides from the world. Their relationship grows into something lovely and believable, but then secrets are exposed and because of the heroine's past, she no longer feels she can trust the hero.
In the end, after some eye-opening situations, the heroine shows up at the hero's work. Things are awkward at first because you can feel the pain between them.

So the heroine shows up and after airing some things out, looks at the hero (who happens to be working on a patient) and says, "It hurts when I smile."

The hero turns to her and pauses, then he says, "I can fix that."

Wow! On the surface she could be talking about her teeth and since he's a dentist, obviously he can fix the problem.

But beneath the surface?

Smiling without him hurts. She misses him. She is in pain without him. And he is the fix to her wounds.

Very romantic.

This is the beauty of subtext. It allows the reader to draw their own conclusions and to experience their own feelings about the subject. You don't tell the reader how to feel. You don't tell the reader how the characters feel. Instead, using subtlety and subtext, you allow the reader to intuit the emotions on their own.

In my opinion, it adds depth and more power to a scene when the audience experiences the emotions rather than thinks about them.

Do you have any great examples of subtext that you've seen? How about an example from your own work?


Kristen Painter said...

I can't read this post because you gave a spoiler alert, but didn't say what movie it was! I'm behind on movies so I'm afraid if I read this post, I'll ruin one I haven't seen yet. lol

Angie Ledbetter said...

Subtext and sharp writing are great. Giving readers credit for being able to read between the lines is a must-have in books for me.

Eileen Astels Watson said...

I want to know the movie now so that I can go see it. Sounds like one my hubby would love! (heehee)Maybe for Valentine's Day.

I totally agree with subtext making stories come to life. They lend to far more emotion for sure. I think it's because we can all relate to it. How many times do we dodge being straight forward? Lots. Sometimes to ward off embarrassment, sometimes because we just can't handle voicing the issue, sometimes because we're just not certain we're on the same page so we leave it open to interpretation. Or, perhaps, we plain and simply don't have time for the nervous breakdown that we deserve and voicing our feelings outright would surely send us into one. Feelings are so complex, and we rarely like to be transparent. Subtext is a great way to reveal that on the page, and off.

Hey, How was the conference?

Terri Tiffany said...

Love that line! I guess that is my kind of movie!

anita said...

I know the movie! It's Ghost Town. :-)

GREAT write up Jessie! And you brought it all back to me. To think, it was your glowing review of it via email that made me get out and buy it. And I LOVED that movie.

Subtext is an amazing tool. I'd like to use the example of one of my faves from Wuthering Heights, but I'm going to have to go dig out the book and that'll take a while.

Since I'm rushed for time today, I'll have to drop in later and add it...if I don't forget. Heh.

Jessica said...

Huh, Kristen.
Maybe I should add the title in? I wasn't sure...

Jessica said...

I agree, Angie.

Jessica said...

Very true, Eileen. People don't always answer questions straight up either. Oh, the movie is on dvd now, so it's not in the theaters. :-) I hope you have a great Valentine's Day.

Jessica said...

Terri, if you could see the movie then the line is so powerful. The actress does a great job, I think, with her character.

Jessica said...

Don't forget Anita! I only read that book once, in high school, so I'd like to see the example.

Sarah said...

Ha, I was reading your post and I thought: Hey, that movie sounds familiar. That's because my hubby and I just watched it on Saturday night, and I agree, it was great. Very romantic.

Jessica said...

:-) I like your new pic Sarah!

Kathryn Magendie said...

Oh, I love it when I'm still thinking about character, scene, or snatches of dialogue hours and even better days after watching a good movie or reading a good book!

Susan J. Reinhardt said...

Hi Jess -

Whew! I finally got a chance to read this post.

Great subtext example. I can't think of any in my own work at the moment. If I find some, I'll let you know. BTW, I spent some time re-writing a chapter of my book today. YAY!

Susan :)

Jessica said...

That's really when we know something is good, when it sticks with us! I love it too, Kathryn.

Jessica said...

Hi Susan,
Congrats on the chapter! Great news. :-)
YOu know, as much as I love subtext, I'm not sure if I use it or not. I'll have to check.