August 1, 2017

Story Tropes: What’s the Subtext?

Book open to a blurry page with text: The Subtext of Tropes: What's the Hidden Message?

The messages readers get from our writing aren’t always explicitly stated. In fact, we usually want to avoid the “too on-the-nose” problem that can come from stating a message outright. Instead, a story’s meaning and hidden messages often lurk in the subtext.

Subtext is everywhere in our story. Subtext flows throughout our plots and characters. If our protagonist saves a child, that creates different impressions than if they save a child’s balloon.

Going deeper, we can find subtext in our character’s choices, motivations, interactions, and internalizations. How do they react to problems? Do they have good intentions? How do they treat others? What do they value?

Our story’s themes also create subtextual impressions, sending more messages to readers. But if we’re not careful, the subtext of our story’s themes could send the wrong message, such as if a romance hero loves the heroine only because of her “innocence.” What happens when she’s not innocent anymore?

The expectations readers have for our story based on its genre act like subtextual messages as well. Every genre comes with implicit promises to readers—mysteries deliver justice, romances deliver happiness, etc.—and readers would be disappointed if the subtextual expectations aren’t met.

Last time, we talked about the tropes—or common themes and story devices—we use in our writing. Guess what? Story tropes also add to the subtext of our story. *smile*

Story Tropes Contain Subtext?

In last week’s post about story tropes, we mentioned a few common tropes, such as the comic-book-hero origin tale. The standard way this trope plays out might offer subtextual messages along the lines of:

  • ordinary people can rise to be a hero
  • we all have hidden skills, talents, or abilities
  • we are defined by how we choose to use our power

Story tropes add to the subtext of our story. Click To TweetDepending on how we twist the standard tropes, we might create very different messages. As discussed last time, the first Iron Man movie gave us a protagonist unworthy of his powers, so the subtext for his origin story also included redemption messages about how we can try to make up for our mistakes through choices and sacrifices, etc.

Some tropes are found in certain genres more than others, so the interaction of trope and genre can also play a role. For example, arranged-marriage tropes can be found in both historical romance and fantasy stories. However, the trope often plays out quite differently between those genres.

Going further, a contemporary story with that trope would be even more different. The unique circumstances behind an arranged marriage in modern society would potentially create surprising subtext.

A Deeper Look: A Conversation about Subtext in Paranormal Tropes

Several years ago, Angela Quarles, my writing bestie, and I wrote a post for the Paranormal Unbound blog about the subtext behind common paranormal romance (PNR) tropes.

With Angela’s permission (and a few edits for length), here’s that too-fun-not-to-share-again conversation with more examples of the subtextual messages we can find within every story trope… *smile*

Angela: Subtext always makes a story richer and one of those fun things to play with, or think about when reading any work of fiction. Since we’re on Paranormal Unbound, we’re going to zero in on subtext in paranormal romance.

Jami: Yes, I love both paranormal romance and subtext, so it made sense—er, to me anyway—to combine them in our chat. Personally, I think paranormal has oodles of subtext, but I’d love to hear your thoughts first. *smile*

Angela: I think that’s why I love paranormal fiction, because there’s built-in subtext. We’re in the know that such and such is a were-gerbil but the heroine doesn’t, and so how fun it is when they get into a discussion of pet rodents and she doesn’t like them and they’re talking about the pros and cons, and what the hero’s really talking about is whether she could love him. We’re in on it, and I think that tickles the reader’s literary bone. Or any other kind of paranormal, like time travel, there’s usually someone who’s not ‘in the know’ and that makes for some interesting back and forth.

Jami: Great example! I can think of several story ideas from that bit. (Although maybe not about were-gerbils.) Yes, that dramatic irony style of subtext (when the reader knows more than the character) can be a lot of fun about a seemingly insurmountable conflict.

All relationships have to negotiate, and the subtext of that situation usually leads to epic power struggles. The “in the know” character might have special abilities but be unfamiliar with society. The not “in the know” character might have more local clout or try to hold what little information they do have over the other.

So on some level, many paranormal romances come down to power. Who has it, who wants it, who’s willing to trust, to share, to cooperate? Great conflict—and relationship—potential there!

Another common trope in paranormal romance is the “fated mate,” where the characters know or learn that they belong together (and maybe can’t even be with anyone else). What are your thoughts on the subtext of that trope?

Angela: Hmm…. I’m not sure I’ve given that a lot of thought outside of the more obvious messages that trope is saying—that there is only The One for us. Though I know some don’t like that trope, I don’t have a problem with it.

There’s something kind of intriguing knowing this is the relationship you will have for the rest of your life and no matter how hard it gets you have to work it out. There’s a kind of security in that. This sometimes ties into the ‘only one in the know’ aspect when the paranormal creature knows this is their fated mate and the other doesn’t know and that can make for some interesting tension. What other kinds of subtext do you like with that trope?

Jami: Interesting! I hadn’t thought of the security aspect of the trope before, but you’re right. It would relieve the pressure of dating and trying to find someone compatible if we knew there was The One waiting for us, wouldn’t it?

I’ve seen some Fated Mate stories that also include the Love At First Sight trope. If you ask me, those make the romance too easy, unless—as you said—only one party knows the score.

If they both know they’re fated for each other and Love At First Sight is involved, where’s the conflict? Just them being stubborn? (And yes, I’ve seen PNRs with that exact story.) To me, the subtext there says not to bother with trying to find love or trying to resist or trying to build a relationship at all—it will just be handed to you. (Er, my bias against those stories may be showing. *grin*)

Angela: Totally. I’ve read some like that too, and it saps the story of any tension. I think the most successful romances are when both external and internal factors make it hard for them to get their HEA.

The other subtext that goes with that, when coupled with Love At First Sight, is that there’s someone out there who will take you just like you are, with no work and no compromises, and sometimes that’s hard to swallow. But sometimes that might be just the escape that reader needs (it’s not for me, but I’m not knocking other’s needs for this assurance). The absence of Love At First Sight can make this more interesting, that’s for sure.

Jami: Good point! Yes, the Love At First Sight subtext is more escapist, which I’ve been known to be in the mood for sometimes, so I shouldn’t knock it too much. *blush*

On the other hand, the Fated Mate stories that don’t include the Love At First Sight trope have more variations for their subtext. I see them as being like a paranormal version of an arranged marriage.

The characters might know they’re supposed to end up with the other, but they have a choice. (And choices always make for more interesting stories.) They can choose to fight their fate (which can create unintended subtext about free will and being forced into physical intimacy), they can accept their fate but not work at it (and end up in a miserable relationship), or they can choose to make the best of it and work at love and the relationship just like all of us non-paranormal beings.

Oh! Your mention of “knowing you have to work it out no matter how hard it gets” reminded me of a book I read long ago (and can’t remember the name, darn it). It was about two immortals fated to be together for eternity. Several hundred years later, they’d drifted apart, and the book was about them trying to make it work again. That was unique. That’s like a couple determined not to get divorced even though they’d “fallen out of love.” So tropes definitely don’t have to be cliches.

Angela: That does sound like a unique story! So, besides the Fated Mate trope, what other tropes have subtexts that you like to explore and/or read about—what intrigues you? Any good PNR reads where the subtext had your mind going like a were-gerbil on crack running on a wheel?

Jami: *whispers* How did you know what the inside of my brain looks like?

*ahem* My favorite subtext shows up in PNR stories where the couple doesn’t end up on the same page (both vampires or shapeshifters or whatnot). The stories where one character remains human and the other character lives as their paranormal selves, and yet they find a happily ever after together, speaks (to me) about racism, classism, sexism, and all those other -isms.

Here we have two people from vastly different cultures, backgrounds, DNA base, abilities, fur growth patterns, etc., and they somehow find a way to get along and work toward common goals. They look past their differences—even past, er, animal aspects in the case of some shapeshifters—and appreciate what’s on the inside. That’s one of the most beautiful subtextual messages in PNR, I think.

Angela: I totally agree! Sometimes I feel like when the solution to the story is one of them becoming the other’s type (were-gerbil to were-gerbil) I feel a little let down, like that was too easy or that there was a missing opportunity there to explore something deeper.

Like you said, it’s much more beautiful when they can get their HEA without having to become a whole nother species. And so much more satisfying to have it work out through an emotional change instead of a physical change. Cuz, you know, getting to change our species is not something we can do in real life, so it’s so much more satisfying seeing even these supernatural creatures have to make tough choices like we do and still get their HEA—that they don’t get the magic HEA bullet that we can’t possibly ever have.

Jami: Exactly! Although a part of me loves knowing the immortal/long-lived paranormal character will get to keep his/her mate for a longer period of time, it can feel like a cheat—a magic pill to make them 100% compatible for all time going forward. I’d rather get the sense that they’ll have a normal-ish lifetime together and still hold on to who they were before.

The subtext of changing species is like the paranormal version of one member of the couple having to give up everything—job, house, family, etc.—to be with the other person, and that never feels fair to me unless the other person is giving up something too. In real life, both people compromise to find a middle ground, and couples often go through “seasons” (“I’ll sacrifice and move for you right now, and when this assignment is over, it’s my turn.”). There’s no turn-taking in changing species. *smile*

Angela: Very true, and what does that say to the reader? Like you said, the subtext is that it’s okay to become completely not you anymore, in the most radical of cases, as long as you get the man (or were-gerbil).

Jami: Yes! Just say no to becoming a were-gerbil. I think that’s our subtextual message in this post. *laughs*

Angela: LOL. So true, and maybe on that note we should stop. I know we both could keep going, but I seem to have a fixation on were-gerbil analogies which isn’t probably healthy and we should leave it at that ?

I loved that guest post not only because it gives such a fun inside look at our writing friendship, but also because our rambling shows how little tweaks can completely change the subtext accompanying the tropes. For example, this snippet from the comments:

Jami: I could think of several stories where the subtext was there the whole time about how the human character didn’t fit in as a human anyway. No family, friends, etc. And that would make the “sacrifice” of changing species far less. Or…the worldbuilding for the other species could be built up as such that it came across as an evolution and *not* a sacrifice at all.

There are many ways stories can approach that plot point, and I think the interesting thing is recognizing how the subtext changes with each option. ?”

Subtext from story tropes—when done well—can strengthen our story. Click To TweetEvery story’s tropes contains subtext, and while we might not think about subtext while we’re drafting, we probably want to examine our story’s subtext once we’re done. Just as we could accidentally create the wrong themes in our story, we could accidentally include subtext through our tropes that creates the wrong impression as well.

By understanding that all elements of our story could create subtext, we can ensure that the messages our story includes add up to the impression we want. Subtext from story tropes—when done well—can strengthen all aspects of our story, from character impressions to our story’s theme. So it’s valuable to check our subtext and ensure that our story’s elements are playing nicely together. *smile*

What story elements do you most notice contributing to a story’s subtext (maybe not while reading, but afterward)? Have you thought about how story tropes can add to our story’s subtext? Does a trope’s subtext contribute to why you like or dislike certain tropes? What subtexts and tropes do you find most interesting? Which do you dislike and why?

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Sieran Lane
Sieran Lane

Hey Jami! I love how you and Angela gave so many examples of tropes and their subtext. 🙂 Hmm, I’m starting to see “subtext” as “implied messages”—I think these two terms are the same, but the latter seems to click with me more, haha. I personally love mpreg (male pregnancy) romances, lol! Even though a lot of others hate it. To me, the subtext suggests a kind of gender equality, so women don’t always have to be the child-bearers. (I’m only talking about cisgender men and women in this paragraph, though.) Ooh, I love reading stories involving classism, or two protagonists from contrasting social classes. They’re so interesting! I’m quite fond of “fated mate” stories, and maybe I’ve been lucky so far, because I have never seen a fated mate story where the couple didn’t have some big issues to sort out after getting together—they had to put in a lot of work into their relationship too, just like regular human beings do. And I have read stories where some minor character fated mate pairs were only attracted to each other physically; they were incompatible emotionally and didn’t love each other. So that was quite shocking and unconventional! Hmm, another trope I see a lot, is when a person believed for 20+ years that they were straight, but one day, they have romantic feelings for someone of the same gender. Again, I know some people dislike this trope, but I’m fine with it, since it reflects my own life experience,…  — Read More »

Donna L Hole

Hmm, I never thought of stories having subtext; but I suppose they do. And I can see how certain tropes engender specific subtext. When I’m writing, I don’t think about it too much – it might stop the flow to make sure ALL THAT is in the story. But I think I recognize it (or rather its lack) during editing. Certainly when reading other authors.

Good discussion.

Carradee / Misti

Oh, I use subtext all the time. What isn’t said can be as important or more so than what is. Sometimes I have to consider editing a story to make it more explicit—there’s a major event at the climax of “A Fistful of Earth” that some readers have missed the transition on, because it’s implied, and I’ve been seriously considering tweaking the released story with a line to clarify that for such readers. The series relies so heavily on implication. Like, book 3’s narrator makes a side comment that causes a significant problem in book 4, but nobody—not even those narrators—knows the connection. And then the actual “epic” part of the plot is very much carried in subtext, because all the characters pretty much just know what they’re doing with their own lives, maybe some of the implications, but they don’t really realize the full scope of what’s going on. And the one that has the clearest view of the full scope has the worst view of herself, her own situation, and the man who loves her. Subtext is also why I thought long and hard before producing a “censored” version of my cyberpunk novellas. That penname and genre in my writing has readers who I know avoid some language and content, but who want that sort of story, so I produced both the regular edition and the censored one. (Both currently released in the same e-book, but I’m considering changing that to make the “Authorized Cut” a download from…  — Read More »


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