Today I spent a part of the day keeping clarity with the exposition in mind. The importance of clarity really slapped me across the face today while editing. I do like it when the beginning of the story gives a good punch, but audiences get sour about the punch if they don’t have enough information as to why they were hit so hard (by the way, I don’t know why I’m using violence as a metaphor…maybe I just like it when stories make me feel something).
It reminds me of a time I tried to show a friend of mine an anime series that I thought was cool and she couldn’t get into it even with all of its action and mysterious characters because she said there was no one to care about. I was bitter at first thinking she just couldn’t keep track, but after discussing with it further, her points were based around the pacing of the first episode. Granted, with anime it’s a little different (we otaku have the rule of at least giving a show 2-3 episodes before you completely drop it), but if the pilot of a weekly anime series is airing, the writers and producers should be considerate of what will catch their audiences and keep them itching for more. That’s an important attribute of the exposition; there should be a character, an event, or some detail that makes you wonder about the bigger picture and persuade you to stay for the whole story.
I was almost 5 minutes late to work today because I kept reading and rereading varied posts on Tumblr about diversity in our entertainment. I read these kinds of articles on other sites as well since it’s become a huge and, unfortunately, controversial topic thanks to all the Disney remakes. Almost every discussion regarding ethnic diversity in entertainment is argumentative and full of aggravation. There’s a heat behind many people expressing their hatred for racism, misrepresentation, and the like in their arguments, hoping to demonize and ridicule their opposers who may be implying their tolerance for racism in entertainment in the slightest. You’d think I caught this from the arguments as they are, but actually, it was the subtext and the subtext revealed much more than I just described.
Identifying subtext is reading between the lines, basically. We find subtext in tone and diction more than anything. In fiction, it’s most apparent in dialogue or first-person narration. In non-fiction, it’s most apparent in works that are more emotional and argumentative than works that rely heavily on logic and information. The more subtext is identified, the more transparent a written piece becomes. Let’s start with fiction.
Subtext in Fiction
I’m bringing back the wonderful Tim Hickson, aka Hello Future Me on YouTube, who is just spectacular and someone I think every writer should subscribe to. This is one of his most recent videos where he discusses how pacing works in a variety of genres and how you can figure out what style of pacing works best for your story. He brings up many wonderful points, but my favorite ones were his points on subtext. As I stated before, subtext brings transparency. In fiction that transparency is applied to the characters and the setting revealing what’s going on in internal and external realities. Tim points out that the audience is always “investigating the text for extra meaning”. Why? Because that’s the audience’s way of deciding whether or not a character or event is worth caring about. Our readers care about our story when there’s a good hook in the inciting incident leading to the big climax. The subtext needs to orbit those two plot elements to keep the readers engaged.
So fiction writers must understand that subtext isn’t just what keeps our audience turning the pages, but also shows how considerate the author is of their audience. All of us writers want our audience to care about our story so we do what we can to show we kept them in mind. That’s also why subtext has such great influence over pacing; depending on the elements of the plot, the genre, and the subtext, the flow of the story will evolve for the sake of the audience. With that being said, subtext is important in non-fiction too as it truly reveals how much the author cares about their audience.
Subtext in Non-Fiction
I’m not going to share the Tumblr post I was engaged in, but let me tell you what all of us Tumblr users see in the subtext probably 99.999999% of the arguments on that site: frustration and competitiveness. When you write anything that is argumentative, academic or otherwise, the way you come off to your audience should always be top priority because those are the people you’re trying to persuade. A solid argument will often follow these steps:
Main Argument and Evidence
Opposing Arguments and Evidence
Writer’s Personal Stance
When frustration and competitiveness is interwoven in this general guideline for an argument, the author immediately loses credibility. It’s not because of the passion and fire in the writing (since pathos or “emotional content” is often expected) , but it’s because of the lack of consideration for the audience. Tumblr and other internet writers love to lead their argument with an insult or belittlement to the opposing party. Imagine starting one of your essays for an English professor with “All right, you pretentious twat, you better f**king pay attention and don’t you dare assume there’s gonna be anything “wiki” ahead because I’m a goddamn scholar.” This doesn’t translate into “I know what I’m talking about,”; it’s more like “This is what I think of you and I’ve decided due to previous interactions with you, I dislike you and don’t really care about your perspective; my writing is next to divine so why do you think you matter?” You may think I’m over-exaggerating, but I’ve lost count of how many “I’m studying [insert academic field here], so I know what I’m talking about.” There’s nothing wrong with addressing your experience, but the subtext is what alerts your audience to lose interest in your work. Transparency and personality are apparent in subtext and it make or break your writing.
The writer of a memoir, a travel essay, a stream of consciousness piece, and even an academic journal article have to be conscious of their subtext; otherwise, they could sabotage their chances of ever being heard. What is the memoir of a manipulative liar? What is the travel essay of someone who just went across the street? What is a stream of consciousness piece of someone who refuses to open up? What is an academic journal article by scholars who introduce themselves as the best of the best and didn’t need a peer review? What is an argument laced with insults? Not worth reading. Not worth taking seriously. A joke. Why? Because if the subtext is stating “I’ll never be considerate of your opinion,” your audience will reflect by neglecting your work. That’s why I’m sad to say that I was almost late to work just to realize that some people who present arguments about ethnic diversity in entertainment have a tendency to shift their argumentative stance from being advocates of diversity to being advocates for their insecurities. They come off as writers, academics, debaters, and analysts who don’t want change; they want to win and feel better about themselves.
This is important to point out because winning an argument or persuading your audience isn’t supposed to be like a boxing match where you beat your opposers to the ground and for the hell of it you pull out a knife and slash them to pieces just to make it crystal clear that you’re the superior fighter. Argumentative writing is an opportunity to be objective, considerate, transparent, and ultimately, heard. Our arguments may never be 100% foolproof and no amount of insults will make it that way, which is why we must remain objective and consider opposing views before we become vulnerable and express our genuine stance on the topic. We try to present our best. Insults and belittling at its finest really means this in subtext: “I’m afraid of being vulnerable, so if I tear apart your character before I address it, I hope to appear as better than you without being vulnerable at all.” It’s Bullying 101. Even if you despise your opposer, you can address them and your disagreements with them without stooping to their level.
If there is no openness and objectivity to your writing, rarely will your audience be open and objective enough to give it a chance. Subtext will call you out, dude.
And let me address this loud and clear: I am not supporting any kind of kindness or tolerance towards racist parties who disapprove of ethnic diversity in entertainment and otherwise. I stand for dignity and enlightenment over ignorance. Don’t let them pull you down to their level. Ever.
The Subtext in This Blog Post
Because why not?
The discussions about diversity in entertainment are obscure to me
I don’t think people know how to properly argue or present their point, but wish they did because there are great minds out there
I don’t approve of degradation of others or the self
I don’t approve of unfairness or inconsideration
Life is full of unfairness and inconsideration and it bothers me
I can’t stop or control the injustice in the world, but think I can do my part with expressive blog posts
My stance in this post has elements of subjectivity even though I promote objectivity
I believe learning from your opposition has more value than completely disregarding them (because I’m a trickster-loving pagan lol)
Every character should have purpose. I had to redesign a character today, who started off one way, but I had to make her the opposite of what she initially was to improve her presence in the story.
I hate side characters without purpose. I’ve seen main characters without purpose and they make me livid, but side characters are just as bad because you don’t want the atmosphere your main character is in to be bland or not memorable. A side character without purpose and depth to their design is a nuisance. Even if the character is the comedic relief or specifically needed as a plot device for a single moment, the character should have purpose.
Okay, I sound like a broken record, don’t I? A character with purpose is a character designed with significant attachments to the setting, themes, and plot of the story. This doesn’t mean the character has to “belong” in the world you put them in; it means that their attributes affect what is happening in your world or story for a goddamn reason. Like, imagine reading a romantic story where the protagonist and their love interest are destined to be, but a character who is literally a nobody, doesn’t even have a name, starts spewing out the protagonist’s darkest secrets for no reason just so the love interest negatively reacts and every time the protagonist somehow gets their love interest to accept them again, the nobody just appears again to spew their shit and vanish into the darkness until they’re needed again. And when you get to THE END of this romantic story, even though it ends with “happily ever after”, the nobody is never explained! No! I hate that! I’ve even read fanfictions like that! I’ll never accept this unless the story is avant garde af (but even avant garde has more purpose than an underdeveloped character and that’s saying something)!
I don’t know why I’m heated about this…it’s because I’m thinking about characters without purpose in other stories…maybe. I don’t know. I am sure as hell determined to give my character’s purpose though. If I ever create a pointless character, it will be done to prove my point in the most spiteful way possible.
Most writers know about this very famous diagram of dramatic structure.
When I look at Freytag’s Pyramid, I also think of Dan Harmon’s Story Circle, which is one of the coolest and simplest ways to explain storytelling.
My favorite aspects of the story circle of the paradoxical nature of life/death, stasis/change, order/chaos, and the conscious/subconscious working together. These are the most important elements so we can see DEVELOPMENT in the characters. When a story is lackluster and unsatisfying, it’s often missing these elements. We’ve seen many stories flop due to a lack of transformation and purpose.
Another thing to point out is the vast difference between Freytag’s Pyramid and Harmon’s Story Circle is the climb versus the cycle. I think Freytag’s pyramid is very pre-modernist and concrete. A situation is presented, choices are made, and those choices lead to an inevitable end or revelation. We’ve structured the pyramid by sequential acts, beginning, middle, and end, but stories being told this way seem to be rigid, half-truths. It’s like these stories are saying “If this happens to you, and you do this, and things will end like that.” It’s a very black-and-white way of defining how we deal with conflicts in life. Harmon’s Story Circle, on the other hand, presents stories as cyclical. The Story Circle is postmodernist, more subjective, and fluid. The cycle of the character’s life do come to a finish, but only to allow a new one to be birthed. There really is no conclusion, yet there is still a revelation along with acknowledging the constancy of change.
So yeah… food for thought for my fellow writers. I’d love to know what you think if you’d like to leave a comment.
Antihero: “A central character, or protagonist, who lacks traditional heroic qualities and virtues (such as idealism, courage, and steadfastness). An antihero may be comic, antisocial, inept, or even pathetic, while retaining the sympathy of the reader. Antiheroes are typically in conflict with a world they cannot control or whose values they reject,” – The NTC’s Dictionary of Literary Terms
My Take on The Antihero
Honestly, this is my favorite type of character. They fall under other archetypes like tricksters, desperados, lone wolf, and the like. Ostracized, brooding, angsty, mischievous, chaotic, and neutral only when they want to be. These characters are near and dear to my heart probably because I’m the antihero of my own life. As I write my novel, I have several characters that fit this mold. I just love them.
I think what’s most important about this definition is the very last sentence: “Antiheroes are typically in conflict with a world they cannot control or whose values they reject.” The most prominent attribute of the antihero is conflict. This comes from their ambiguous alignment (not always lawful, chaotic, good, or evil), their “many shades of gray” point of view, and their autonomy. They conflict with many elements of the story because of their independence and resourcefulness. It’s them against the world, no matter if they have a few allies or not. Although these traits can be admirable, there is a lot of stress that comes with it, which is probably why they gain sympathy from the audience. Freedom isn’t free and you always have to watch your back. Antihero’s often come off as hardened, distant, or mistrusting. The conflicting circumstances they run into simultaneously reinforce the skills they have sharpened from their independent nature and challenge the morale they have for their lifestyle with ethical questions. I love watching a character who does their best to be neutral struggle with their ethics because it really is relatable; it’s how you establish your own personal philosophy.
Have you designed an antihero before, fellow writers? Do you favor this archetype more than others?
Some flowery writing is going to scratch you where you itch and some is going to bore you to death. Either way, I don’t think any of us want to get in the habit of using flowery language to describe a simple setting, character design, scene, or anything else. That’s what editing is for, right? Well, I also don’t want to be negligent of those who are picky with their diction. Sometimes we know that elaboration for something that could be described simply is necessary like the narrator’s tone, for example, or for characterization. Where’s the happy medium?
While researching this topic, I ran into a wonderful YouTube channel called Reedsy, a London-based, “…award-winning community of over 100,000 book publishing professionals,” according to LinkedIn. After watching this very helpful video on purple prose, I immediately added them to the list of resources to tap into later.
Learning about purple prose helped me think about how our mentality shifts when we’re writing in different forms of storytelling. I wanted to finally work on my short story last weekend and it was really hard to pull my mind away from fantasy novel writing. The first 900 words weren’t even elaborate. My narrator was info-dumping due to my insecurities–”it’s a fantasy short story, so I need to worldbuild and tell you the details about every culture involved”– yeah, no. A novel is more of a journey, from a stroll through unfamiliar woods to cautiously crossing a battleground; a short story is a quick trip across town, but the trip was far from ordinary or expected. You don’t want to go purple when you’re writing either. Purple prose is more unwanted projection than progress (excuse the alliteration). Being elaborate and emotive doesn’t require dumping extra adjectives and adverbs. This clicked when I thought about writing poetry or music.
I compared short story writing to writing a song or a poem because I get very picky with word choice and composition when I’m songwriting. Poetry has a bit more of a flow, but editing poems makes me particular. So in my experience, I’m not necessarily saying that short story writing or avoiding purple prose means make your narration robotic and bland; I’m saying consider if your story and your audience will favor your “dark and stormy” tendencies at certain places. Audiences don’t really like repetition or extravagance without meaning. For example, the chorus of a song is repeated 2-3 times during a performance and we don’t mind it if it’s harmonized with the melody, connects the verses and the bridge well, and ends the song in a satisfactory way. The person in the Tumblr post argued there was nothing wrong with “dark and stormy” because it gave you setting and tone; for that reader “dark and stormy” harmonized with the descriptions given later. This is what Shaylynn addressed in the video: “Dense or elaborate language doesn’t have to be purple if it’s substantial and adds to the story.” We’ve had elaborate writers for centuries, but the ones who stand out are the ones with masterful diction in their storytelling.
Time for an ungoth confession…I used to think Edgar Allan Poe was in the purple prose realm when I was a younger, less critical-thinking reader. After reading some analyses of his writing in college, my perspective changed. Poe was actually quite meticulous. Lovecraft is the same. So, if you break down someone else’s writing or your own writing and find descriptions, DIALOGUE (this is a big one), or anything else that isn’t contributing to the plot and theme of your work, you’re going purple. Get rid of it.
Hope this helps anyone who needs it and be sure to check out Reedsy because they seem pretty reliable.