Creating Subtext in Fiction and Memoir

In last night’s Memoir Writing class, we held a spirited discussion about getting our memoirs full of subtext that deepens the meaning for the reader and helps them connect with some universal truth. What do I mean?
Writing Tip for Today: On the surface, your memoir or fiction is about something particular, i.e. a scene: going fishing with Grandpa, your heroine and hero arguing on a boat, or perhaps a childhood memory. But on a deeper level, your story represents a basic human need or emotion or some universal truth. Examples include the need to feel loved, safe, need to belong, the need to feel understood. Here are some things to consider when you try to get at that subtext or universal truth in your story:

  • And Your Point Is? You must have a point, that is something to say. This is one reason why even in memoir, it isn’t enough to tell a story that goes nowhere–even if the story is entertaining. Seinfeld may have gotten away with a plotless sitcom story, but chances are, you won’t.
  • Crack it Open. In order to get down deep where our most primal needs lie, we often must take several tries at getting to the real truth about an event. Look between the lines you’ve written for what is NOT there. Our secrets are in this place, so it’s dangerous territory. Be willing to dig deeper in order to tap into the real story. This might hurt a little, even for novel writers.
  • Offer Hope. No matter how dark or dire the story, most readers crave some sort of hope by the conclusion of the story. This is not the same as “pandering” or being a victim. Over the course of the story, if you write the character as someone who grows and learns, the readers will be more satisfied than if the character gives up or doesn’t care.
  • Go Now and Create Subtext! Talking about subtext is not a call to write in an overwrought self-conscious manner. Don’t think about the deeper meanings while you draft. Just write the story. As Gertrude Stein famously said, “I write to learn what I know.” You may be surprised by the direction your subconscious takes you as you refine what you have to say.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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