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The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot (Art of...) The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot by Charles Baxter

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
Marvelous book on how to work subtext (the story under the story) into fiction. Charles Baxter makes what could be a pedantic and plodding subject one that is comprehensible and interesting. I highly recommend this for writers attempting to build more depth into their writing.

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My short GoodReads review of “The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot” belies the fact that I have a lot more to say about the book. I really want to expound upon a particular chapter in Charles Baxter‘s book and also urge readers not to turn away from this book because of its plain cover and understated title. Baxter uses many examples from well-known literature in order to illustrate the points he makes and he does so in an entertaining way. While not explicitly stated, this book encourages writers to examine their own work for subtext that they may not have been aware of including in their stories. It sure made me take a closer look at a particular scene in Greenville (chapter 10, Johnny Jesus Boots), and has informed how I will move forward on a current project (specifically in making sure to describe faces more closely).

Now that I’ve told you not to discount the book with the plain cover, I’d like to turn my attention to the chapter called “Creating a Scene.” Throughout the chapter, Baxter discusses how creating a scene is absolutely crucial to good fiction, even though creating a scene in real life is typically frowned upon. Creating a scene in this case is not about whipping up some scenario from your imagination and describing it on the page. In the sense Baxter is using the phrase, he means making a scene, causing a commotion, stirring feelings of discomfort in others through engaging in behavior that is unacceptable to polite society. Fiction lives through the scenes its ill-mannered characters make.

Baxter says, “If you were raised in the genteel tradition, as I was, you avoid scenes, even when people say they love you. This is not the best preparation in the world for writing stories.” (pg. 117)

I, too, was raised to avoid making scenes. The tradition wasn’t so much about gentility as it was about children being seen and not heard – and preferably not seen all that often, either. The purpose of squashing a child’s ability to make a scene was to uphold the comfort zones and order of the surrounding adults. (Can you imagine creating a scene in school?) When you become an adult, though, you discover that the ability to make an occasional scene is critical to not being steam-rolled by people who haven’t got your best interests at heart. (The Iranian elections are coming to mind, by way of illustration.)

When it comes to fiction, all bets are off, according to Baxter, as far as avoiding scenes is concerned. “In daily life, a writer may practice conflict-avoidance, but in fiction a writer must welcome conflict and walk straight into it.” (pg. 115) Conflict is where the story is. If life is all fine and dandy, running smoothly, happiness and bluebirds, that’s great for real world, but it means there is no story in fiction. You may as well be watching the grass grow if your story is free of conflict.

Along these lines, Baxter wrote, “Stories often require sparkplug characters — radically unpleasant types — as focusing agents.” (pg. 121)

I like that image – “sparkplug characters” – and the notion that they are “focusing agents,” pulling the action, the conflict of a story into a sharpness than makes you, the reader, pay attention to what’s happening. You’ll notice that sparkplug characters making a scene in real life also cause you to focus upon them, even if you’d rather not.

Baxter indicates that there are a couple of ways to create a scene about making a scene, either by having our sparkplug characters flout convention through the display of bad manners (pg. 128), or by having them attempt “to be visible to others, often in the service of a wish or a demand that [they] seek to impose.” (pg. 129)

Look at me! Look at me! Here I am! I have needs that need to be met, by golly! We can go a very long time without getting our needs met in real life because we refuse to create a scene. Along the way, we become crotchety. And the pressure builds. And the needs, if they haven’t been snuffed by stupor or hopelessness, keep rising and making their demands from the inside, until they overcome our desire to avoid a scene and suddenly we’re making a scene regardless of propriety.

The best part of fiction comes when the writer begins with the build-up of pressure and lets us watch to see if the character is going to blow.


(As an aside, Baxter happens to mention one of my favorite writers in this chapter – Brenda “Strength to Your Sword Arm” Ueland. Baxter actually knew Ueland personally. While he doesn’t cite Ueland as an example of someone who made scenes, after observing her personality through her writing, I’m pretty sure she was as capable of creating a scene (through flouting convention) in real life, as well as in her writing.)