“The Help” — A Guest Post About Subtext

Please welcome Donna Lodge, who contributes this challenging and rewarding take on the value and use of subtext in our stories.

I recently finished reading Linda Seger’s book, “Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath.” It’s a good res0urce, devoted to a often neglected aspect of our craft.

Seger discusses how to find subtext, how to write it (in dialogue and non-verbally through gestures, actions, settings, metaphors, symbols and many other devices), and how to keep it “sub” rather than overt. Each chapter ends with questions and exercises. Like Seger’s other books, her primary target is screenplay writers, but the content is equally useful for writing novels, plays, or directing.

Like Larry often says, the line between novelists and screenwriters is more a line in the sand than it is a true literay chasm.

Like the “Six Core Competencies” in “Story Engineering,” Seger deconstructs how to create subtext, and uses many spot-on examples from movies that show the nuts and bolts of the process.

Seger says, “Subtext is the true meaning simmering underneath the words and actions. It’s the real, unadulterated truth. The text is the tip of the iceberg, but the subtext is everything underneath that bubbles up and informs the text…and conflict exists at this intersection of text and subtext…”

Applying Seger’s deconstruction to “The Help,” in Chapter One Aibileen listens to Miss Leefolt’s bridge club’s chatter while she serves lunch. The subtext in the passage below is close to the surface, which makes it easy to find and translate (or deconstruct).

In general, Stockett’s book  accumulates subtext (from most to least) when (1) a maid and her employer talk to each other; when (2) employers talk to each other, unwilling or unable to be direct; when (3) Skeeter talks with her mother/family/and almost but not quite fiancée; and (4) when “the help” talk to each other.

Typically, the women who comprise the help say what they mean, and mean what they say.

To better understand and build layers of meaning beneath the text, Seger offers a simple but powerful idea: write the subtext under the text or in the margins (a second draft undertaking).

AIBILEEN

“When I get around to Miss Walter, she don’t take but one little old half a sandwich for herself.”

Subtext: Miss Hilly isn’t taking care of her mama. Miss Walter knows her daughter wants to move her to that nursing home, out of her own home. Miss Walter is afraid, and that makes her loose her appetite.

MISS HILLY

“Mama, take another sandwich. You are skinny as a telephone pole. I keep telling her, if that Minny can’t cook she needs to just go on and fire her.”

Subtext: Mama won’t cooperate. It’s Minny’s fault, not mine. Minny’s a bad cook and that’s why Mama won’t eat.

MISS HILLY

“I think you’re malnutritioned, Mama. That Minny isn’t feeding you so that she can steal every last heirloom I have left. I’m going to the  powder room. Y’all watch her in case she collapses dead of hunger.”

Sub-text surfaces when her mother responds with, “I bet you’d love that.”

Seger notes that scripts have individual scene goals, which she calls the “Underlying Objective,” and a goal for the entire script, or a “Super-Objective.” The story goal is in the script’s text,

“…but films rich in subtext have hidden goals under the surface…their ‘Super-Objective. This objective, which exists on the subtextual level, helps drive the actor’s emotions and actions for the entire scene… and the more conscious the writer, the greater the possibility that the script will be unified by a clear objective, even if it lies under the surface.”

Seger quotes 1950’s director, Harold Clurman (Directors on Directing: A Source Book of the Modern Theater). Clurman directed the Broadway play, The Member of the Wedding, based on the film about a 12-year-old girl’s coming-of-age (book of same title written by Carson McCullers). What Seger calls the “Super Objective,” Clurman called the “Spine.”

He saw each character seeking the same objective, but each approached the action differently (as do Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter in “The Help”). From this notion, Clurman identified individual “spines” for each of the main characters, all related to the objective ‘to get connected.’ Clurman said, “A mighty loneliness emanates from this play. It is as if all the characters were separated from the world.” 

Sub-text, and only sub-text, delivers this particular conclusion on a platter.

Seger writes about ways in which the subtext-objective works, cites movies, and analyzes them.  Her book has a good balance of “What” and “How” – theory and application. All of which is instructive, and all of which can be applied, like “The Six Core Competencies” of “Story Engineering.”

Seger says, “For writers, this super-objective could also be called the subtext objective. It’s the driving force of the story…the underlying action that runs beneath the surface. The stronger the flow, the greater the desire to achieve this objective, and the more tension, conflict, and subtext there is. By having a subtext-objective, as well as a text objective, the underlying current adds depth and direction.”

The subtext-objective can work in three ways: (1) All the characters (except the antagonist) in a script/play/novel can be working toward the same super-objective (as do Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter). They may want the same thing, but are working toward it in different ways, which generates tension and conflict. (2) A major character might be working toward the super-objective, but other main/supporting characters may not have the same objective until later in the story. (3) The protagonist and antagonist will have opposing underlying-objectives and super-objectives.

I thought there were two choices of the super-objective or subtext-objective of the story, “The Help,” and of the main characters, Aibileen, Minny, and protagonist Skeeter. It could be defined as: to have freedom. As I looked at Seger’s examples, the second choice, which I think is more on target, is that the super-objective or subtext-objective of the story is: to have choice, which to me is less generic, more personal. For the antagonist of the story, Miss Hilly, the super-objective or subtext-objective of the story could be defined as: to prevent or deny choice.

Donna Lodge is a freelance writer. She’s writing a novel about Will Shakespeare, who time-travels to the Catskill Mountains as a stand-up comic. To her amazement, she got an “Honorable Mention” in the Writer’s Digest 2011 short story contest.

(Editor’s note… a killer concept, that.)

9 Comments

Filed under "The Help" Deconstruction series

9 Responses to “The Help” — A Guest Post About Subtext

  1. Thanks for putting this together. This takes story structure to a whole other level indeed.

  2. Donna Lodge

    Shane, you’re welcome! Seger does a terrific job with subtext. She’s very application oriented, so after reading the book, you have a good set of techniques/tools for finding and building subtext into your story (and recognizing it in other novels and movies. I particularly liked her deconstruction of the text/subtext in the Robert Redford film, “Ordinary People,” which is a subtext maze.) And thanks for your post on visualizing the four parts of “The Help.” Great idea.

  3. @Donna: You’re welcome. After reading your post I was thinking how I could colorize subtext on the book. 🙂

  4. Donna Lodge

    Shane, go for it – and share 🙂 You probably could figure out a color-coding system for subtext. Seger breaks subtext into major categories like unconscious and conscious subtext, verbal and non-verbal, and then gives a lot of examples of subcategories of subtext (like specific gestures and actions, pauses and evasions in conversation, sound metaphors, etc.,). So you could assigned each of the subcategories to one of the major categories and give the major categories a color. Don’t know how you’d color code all of the subcategories. Just a thought. The spreadsheet you mentioned in your post for “The Help” sounds interesting…

  5. @Donna and Shane and everybody else reading along – I love this stuff. And like so many aspects of the craft, there are many names and ways of describing specific things we read, and need to make appear in our own scenes.

    Believe me, I know… the people who are hating my book (they’re out there) are, in spite of themselves, sometimes actually agreeing with it, they just can’t accept the rhetoric with words like “act” and “mission-driven” and “engineering.” It is what it is.

    But I digress… subtext can be thought of as the forces and truths and consequences that play upon a moment — action, interaction, the weight of tension, etc. — that are either unknown or unacknowledged by the players in the scene (for whatever reason), but are either known or revealing themselves to the reader. Lots of wiggle room for the writer in that… but a critical narrative skill to cultivate. It’s all over a great story, every time. L.

  6. Donna Lodge

    @Larry and all: I agree that “…there are many names and ways of describing specific things we read…” It’s easy to miss the connection because we associate certain ideas with certain labels/names. For example, Seger calls the goal for the entire script/story the ‘super-objective.’ You mentioned that a story’s ‘theme’ – what it’s about, what it means – was the same as the ‘super-objective.’ Because different labels were used for the same concept, I totally missed the connection between the two terms until you pointed it out. This could account for some of the reaction you’ve gotten when you used labels like “mission-driven,” “engineering,” etc.

  7. I’m a bit late with this comment, but I’d just like to thank you for this post. So much of what’s in the blogosphere is the same rehashed, basic advice–this is a fresh take on things, and one that makes me think more critically about the subtext in my own work. Thank you.

  8. Donna Lodge

    Cameron, you’re welcome, and thanks for the “thumbs-up” on the subtext post. Glad it resonated with you. On an amazingly regular basis, I agree that Larry’s story.fix blog does a great job of offering us something new to think about in terms of writing, or puts a fresh face/a new twist on an idea or craft concept that’s been around.

  9. Im thankful for the post.Thanks Again. Really Cool.