I met Maureen McQuerry at the very first Pacific Northwest Booksellers Trade Show I ever attended. Her warm smile drew this newbie to her like a moth; she not only showed me the ropes, she even connected me with her event coordinator, Michele Kophs, Provato Author Events, (also known as Wonder Woman) with whom I have now worked for the past many years. I loved Maureen’s wonderful YA book, The Peculiars, and was thrilled when she agreed to take time out to visit with us here. Take it away, Maureen!
Subtext in the Details
Picture this. At the edge of the meadow is a fence. It has been standing a long time, so long that every post leans, often at a different angle. Between the posts barbed wire stretches and in a few places sags. When you get close enough, you can see remnants: a strand of hair, a string a small piece of cloth caught in the barbs. The details of what has passed by are in held in place for us to examine.
I have been thinking about the subtext of details. How the small things our characters pay attention to and point out to the reader can say more than the keenest dialogue. They happen below the text.
Subtext works below spoken dialogue. It’s the unspoken emotions, conflicts, tensions that fuel our characters. And the unspoken often speaks louder than the spoken. Subtext is what’s not said. It’s the characters actions and responses.
But subtext can also be created by what our characters notice, carefully selected details that make the particular universal. These details let us in our characters thoughts even when they don’t speak a word.
Ralph Fletcher offers wise advice in What a Writer Needs: “Don’t write about senility or a man losing his ability to take care of himself. Write about lost belt loops.”
How we can choose just the right detail to show what our character thinks and believes at that point in time without the character telling us? In the wonderful and bleak Winter’s Bone, Ree Dolly thinks about the last time she saw her father. “Walnuts were thumping to the ground in the night like stalking footsteps of some large thing that never quite came into view…” The detail of the walnuts falling, their sound in the night builds that sense of the ominous that permeates the whole book.
Imagine two co- workers are arguing, a snarky he said/ she said kind of fight, and all the while he keeps glancing at the ticket stubs on her desk, the ones she saved from her big weekend date. As readers we build an idea of the subtext in that argument.
If you could imagine the details of your scene caught in the barbed wire fence I described, what would they be? What would the things your character notices be shouting or whispering to the reader?
Maureen divides her time between writing, teaching and presenting. Her most recent book is Beyond the Door(Abrams/Amulet), the first is a MG duo that combines, Celtic myth, shapeshifters and a secret code in a coming of age story. The adventure continues in The Telling Stone 2015.
Her YA novel, The Peculiars, is an ALA Best Book for Young Adult Readers 2013, Bank Street and Horn Book recommended book and a winner of the Westchester Award.
She teaches writing at Columbia Basin College, loves giving author talks in schools and at conferences. When she’s not writing or reading, she’s always hoping for a real life mystery or adventure.