Wednesday, January 25, 2012

When Subtext Goes Wrong

While on a flight, I began reading The Righteous by Michael Wallace. It had an interesting concept dealing with a murder investigation by a secretive polygamist sect that happened to one of their own. He wrote the book well, delivered solid characterization, a tight plot, and fluid prose. SPOILER ALERT However, towards the end in one of the climatic scenes when many of the characters are in mortal danger, it is revealed to the reader that one of the main characters was wearing a wire for the FBI, and the agents, right on cue, burst in with their guns drawn to essentially save the day.

END SPOILER ALERT. This reveal of such a critical piece of information in the place it was revealed made the climax instantly loose it's momentum because I felt like I had fallen victim to a deus ex machina. Now, this particular scene was not quite a DEM as the rescuing characters had been properly brought into the story, but because of the late reveal of that critical piece of information, it really felt like it.

Now, what I think Michael Wallace could have done differently to fix this would to have brought that critical piece of information in when one of the characters was in their viewpoint. It would have taken away the knowledge gap between the reader and the character, but it would inserted a new knowledge gap (that the reader would be aware of) between the main character and the antagonist. This would sacrifice the poorly done twist for heightened suspense.

So I think the main takeaway from this short post would be that you need to be careful when using knowledge gaps to give your story a deeper subtext, because one wrong slip (especially right at the climax) can have disastrous effects. Look at what you are keeping from the reader and actively see if there might be a better way to reveal that information.

Do you have any examples of when subtext goes wrong?


Kelly Stone Gamble January 26, 2012 at 5:37 AM  

Excellent point, Michael. It's so tempting to have that suspenseful/how are they getting out of this moment, but we can't just throw things on the reader at the last minute and expect them to bite.

John Wiswell January 27, 2012 at 3:59 PM  

While an older example, I recently read Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice. The last fifty pages are a mess of retroactive continuity and deliberately explaining how she wanted you to have interpreted events such that the final couple can be united. She managed to talk her romance to death. On one level, it was an utter failure of subtext - though also indicative of a writing style popular at the time.

Helen A. Howell January 30, 2012 at 1:35 AM  

Interesting post Michael.

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