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Find your story’s emotional throughline

Even though I didn’t fully realize it at the time, an incident as a teenaged babysitter taught me one of my first lessons about subtext and story.

I was babysitting a nine-year-old boy who was literally out of control, a human tornado. He wouldn’t listen. I had plenty of babysitting experience, but I’d never dealt with a child like this. At one point, he found a cigarette lighter and before I could grab it from him, he’d flicked it on and burned his hand.

Later that day, after I had gone home and was walking down the street with a friend, the boy’s mother drove by. She stopped and started screaming at me about her son’s injury. While it wasn’t good that he had hurt himself, her response was extreme for the superficial nature of the burn. I tried to explain how hard it was to manage him, but she just drove away.

Somehow, instinctively, I knew that her reaction wasn’t really about the incident. And as it turned out, she called later and apologized for yelling at me. I found out she was mired in problems. Her husband had left her and the boy. She was struggling financially and her son was acting out and grieving the loss of his father.

Story is about emotional contradictions and epiphanies. If this mother and son were characters, their deeper truths would represent the emotional throughline. The mother’s angry reaction that day was about something more. The subtext — the deeper meaning — was her life turned upside down and her feelings of desperation, faltering confidence, and loss of faith, dignity and love. This woman and her son’s lives were going up in flames.

Consider how you can build your story by creating scenes and dialogue that represent deeper emotional truths.

1. What is your story’s bigger theme?

2. What do your characters want?

3. What are the emotions and events at stake that you can build from?

4.  What moral and emotional strengths and weaknesses will your characters discover?

5. What experiences and relationships have made your characters who they are?

6. How will your characters save themselves by facing their weaknesses and finding their strengths?

The harder your characters work to find these answers and epiphanies, the greater your opportunity to amplify tension and complexity and drive your characters to change. The answers to these questions may well reside within you, the writer. You must dig deep into your own well of subconscious truths, fears, and hopes to identify with your characters. And if you find it in yourself to identify with your characters, your readers will too.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. I find subtext fascinating and I love making my characters say one thing and mean another.

    Often the point is made clearer if the character doesn’t come right out and say what they’re thinking. In the process, you’re also making the reader feel intelligent for unraveling what’s really going on. Win, win.

    Great example, but I’m glad the boy’s mother apologised in the end. 🙂

    April 3, 2013

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