Subtext and first person point-of-view #amwriting

Third-person omniscient has been my usual mode to write in, but I’m not limited to it. When we write in third-person omniscient mode, the story is told from an outside, overarching point of view. The narrator sees and knows everything that happens within the world of the story, including what each of the characters is thinking and feeling.

This works because the narrator hold much of the information back from the reader, doling it out as the protagonists need it.

But what if we want to create a sense of intimacy, of being in the character’s head? And what if we don’t want the reader to know everything that is going on until the last minute?

This is where the literary devices of point-of-view and subtext come into play. It’s fairly easy to keep the reader guessing what is going on in either narrative mode if you make good use of subtext.

The first-person point of view is fairly common and is told from one protagonist’s personal point of view. It employs “I-me-my-mine” in the protagonist’s speech, allowing the reader or audience to see the primary character’s opinions, thoughts, and feelings.

A limited first person point of view is stream of consciousness. This is a narrative mode told from a first-person perspective, replicating the thought processes as well as the actions and spoken words of the protagonist. In real life we can’t be all-seeing and all-knowing—witnesses are notoriously unreliable. First-person point-of-view employs the unreliable narrator which I like when the author understands how to make the subtext work.

Disbelief paralyzes me, but then my emotions coalesce into one thought—Ricky…of course.

Through the use of interior monologues, we show the inner desires and motivations of the protagonists. We also offer the reader the incomplete thoughts they express to themselves but conceal from the other characters. So, we see the POV character’s rambling thoughts, as well as witness their conversations and actions.

How do we fit subtext into our narrative if we’re using a limited first person point of view? “Subtext” is the hidden story, the hints and allegations, and secret motives of the entire cast. Subtext is the content that supports the dialogue and gives private purpose to the events each character experiences.

We don’t want to just lay it all out for the reader in the first paragraphs. Just as in all other narrative modes, in limited first person point of view we have several ways available to reveal the subtext, the hidden motives and desires of our characters.

The Double Entendre: a word or phrase open to two interpretations, one of which is usually risqué or indecent. “My, those are some plump loaves you have rising there, ma’am.” This can be too in-your-face for many readers if the author is heavy-handed. Many classic Noir detective novels of the 1930s through the 1960s employed the double entendre to convey ideas and intentions that the censors wouldn’t have allowed to be published.

Sarcasm: the use of irony to mock or convey contempt. “I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.—Mark Twain. I sometimes use sarcasm as a way to show subtle aggression and tension. Also sarcasm, especially that which is self-directed, can highlight the dark humor of a bad situation.

Lying: The main character may be guilty of habitually telling falsehoods. “Sorry, I’m late. Traffic was a bitch.” If the first page shows the character oversleeping, this lie is a clue that the character is not always truthful. In a first person narrative, the reader should consider that what he tells us may be a lie too.

We can also employ the use of allegory, words, and images that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one. Animal Farm, written by George Orwell, is an allegory that uses animals on a farm to describe the overthrow of the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, and the Communist Revolution of Russia before WW I.

Symbolism: using an object or a word to represent an abstract idea. An action, person, place, word, or object can all have a symbolic meaning. Literary gives us these examples:

  • The dove is a symbol of peace.

  • A red rose, or the color red, stands for love or romance.

  • Black is a symbol that represents evil or death.

  • A ladder may stand as a symbol for a connection between heaven and earth.

  • A broken mirror may symbolize separation.

Writing is as much about rewriting as it is writing new words. Sometimes I have a story that I think might have potential, but I can’t decide if the plot should continue down the bunny trail it’s on or not. I will share it with my writing buddies to see what they think about the premise.

Usually, I get good feedback that helps me steer the narrative in the right direction when I am embarking on the second draft. I consider all feedback good, even when the first readers of a scene or short story don’t “get” what I am trying to convey. The readers don’t see what I mean, so their comments aren’t directly helpful as they have missed the point of the story entirely.

What that kind of feedback tells me is this: the scene or a story must be completely rewritten because the subtext failed to do its job. My protagonist’s intentions must be made clearer to the reader.

That struggle to express my ideas clearly is just part of the process.

Credits and Attributions:

LiteraryDevices Editors. “Symbolism” 2013.  (accessed November 24, 2018).

Quill Pen, PD|by author, BWCNY at English Wikipedia.

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