Subtext in a Scene—Biology and the Three Goods 
©2013 by Robert J Ray

            Subtext is one key to a good story. Subtext is that unseen turmoil boiling under the surface of your tale. To create subtext, you can use the ritual of sexual selection, your character’s choice of a date or a mate. To create drama in the selection ritual, we focus on two characters, one female and one male. To get drama, we deploy the three goods: good genes, good resources, and good behavior.

Three Examples of the Three Goods

            The guests are 30-something, educated, attractive, a mixture of singles, marrieds, and divorced persons. The male is Claude, the female is named Eileen. Claude is handsome. He’s sporting a Rolex and driving a Mercedes. Eileen is attractive. She has no car; she came to the party with a friend. Claude is witty. He tells a good story. Eileen is reserved, formal. She’s attracted to Claude. Her secret in this scene is her borrowed wardrobe. She loves good clothes. Two days before the party, Eileen was laid off. One week before the party, she broke off a relationship. She is polite, well-mannered, a lady.

What’s going on in the subtext? To find out, we decode the details.

  • Handsome is code for good genes. Mercedes and Rolex code for good resources. Claude has two goods out of a possible three. No judgment yet on his behavior.
  • Attractive is code for Eileen’s good genes. The term laid off is code for bad resources. The borrowed wardrobe suggests that Eileen is pinching her pennies. Another clue to bad resources. Eileen is a lady, which suggests good behavior.

Action: Claude flirts with Eileen, heats her blood. Claude offers to take her home after the party and, even though his eyes are wild, she accepts. She only sees a very good-looking man. A short time later, Claude gets into a loud argument. His face turns red. He breaks an expensive table lamp. He laughs, stumbles, touches Eileen, and says: “Let’s split, baby.”

Line up the actions: loud argument, face turns red, breaks a lamp, touches Eileen. All codes for bad behavior. Seeing this behavior, Eileen has a decision to make: Do Claude’s good looks and impressive resources outweigh his bad behavior? Is this guy trainable? Will she still go home with him?

The same question – Is this lout trainable? – is the big theme in the Oscar-winning film, As Good as It Gets. (Writing tip: To find story secrets, study good films.) There are three main characters in this film. A writer named Melvin, played by Jack Nicholson. A waitress named Carol, played by Helen Hunt. And a painter named Simon, played by Greg Kinnear. Melvin is crazy. Simon is gay. Carol the waitress has a sick child, lots of medical bills. Let’s use a grid to nail down the Three Goods.

Genes Resources Behavior Archetype Core Story
Melvin Good Good Bad Monster Coming of Age
Carol Good Bad Good Cinderella Rags to Riches
Simon Good Bad Good Wounded Knight Grail Quest

In Act One of the film, two bad boys put Simon in the hospital, where he can’t paint. Simon is broke. Melvin, the next door neighbor, has money. Melvin is a nasty child in a man’s body. He is selfish and half-crazy. Melvin eats the same breakfast every day at the same neighborhood restaurant, where he demands service from Carol.

Carol the waitress is Cinderella 20 Years After the Ball. She is mature, solid, maternal. Carol works hard, but she lacks the financial resources to care for her sick child. Carol’s appearance – she’s  pretty, shapely, quick-witted, and she serves a hearty breakfast to Melvin – verifies good genes. When she misses work because of her sick child, Melvin sends help from Upper World, a high-powered doctor on a house call to her home. Now Carol owes Melvin. Like Cinderella, Carol is trapped in Lower World, but she shows her Jane Eyre ethics when she runs through the rain to confront Melvin, saying: I won’t sleep with you. Melvin, the monster of suppression, denies his sexual attraction to Carol, but uses his medical leverage to force Carol to play chaperone when Melvin drives Simon the artist to Baltimore to see his parents. Simon’s archetype is Wounded Knight. He makes a Grail Quest to Baltimore to seek acceptance from his parents, who ejected him because he’s gay. Simon’s parents believe that homosexuality is bad behavior.

The trip to Baltimore is a pilgrimage that brings out the worst in Melvin. When he displays bad  behavior, Carol avoids him. She poses for Simon. Drawing Carol in the nude triggers a rebirth for Simon’s art.


The three goods in Jane Eyre

Before we leave the subject of subtext, let’s decode Jane Eyre’s connection to Rochester. Protagonist Jane holds onto her virginity until marriage: guarding her sexuality shows good behavior. Jane is plain, not pretty, the code for bad genes. She has no money, the code for bad resources, until she inherits 20,000 pounds in Act Three. Her good behavior shines in Act Three when she gives 15,000 pounds away to the cousins who saved her from death on the heath.

Mr. Rochester has money, servants, a big mansion (code for good resources). Jane finds him handsome (code for good genes). So do the neighbor ladies with daughters lusting for marriage. But from his first entrance onstage, Rochester shows bad behavior. He’s nasty to Jane. He makes her feel bad about her music and art – what the Victorians would call her “accomplishments.” Rochester forces Jane to attend an Upper World house-party, then embarrasses her in front of his guests. More bad behavior. But homeless Jane wants Thornfield Hall – it represents his resources – and she responds to Rochester’s power and his dark looks and falls in love. At the end of the story, with Thornfield torched by mad Bertha, leaving Rochester blind and wounded, look what happens. His behavior softens. He needs Jane even more and Fate has removed the obstacle of his crazy wife. Jane is now rich (good resources) and Rochester is now poor (bad resources). Jane is still young. Through marriage she discovers a resource in her body: plain Jane is a fertile female. The lovers get married. They produce a baby.

The word baby – remember this for your rewrite – is a code for “gene-carrier.” As Jane Eyre draws to a close, Jane looks back at her marriage and the birth of the baby she has created with Mr. Rochester: “When his first-born was put into his [Rochester’s] arms,” Bronte writes, “he could see that the boy had inherited his own eyes, as they once were – large, brilliant, and black.” Rochester does not need Darwin (Origin of Species is a decade away) or any insights from evolutionary biology to see his genes in their gene-carrier.

The baby verifies Rochester’s genetic success.

The key to success in novel writing is knowing the codes. The easiest code is the archetypal character. Jane Eyre, for example, is a Cinderella archetype. The object of her quest—like all Victorian heroines, Jane wants a husband—is a Monster Archetype named Rochester. The writer understands archetypes, the reader feels their power. When Jane chooses Rochester, she’s following a pattern of sexual selection based in biology. When you write fiction, you can use the same biology with the three goods: good genes, good resources, and good behavior. Jane is good genes, she is healthy and smart. She has no money—bad resources. Rochester has money (good resources) and he feels handsome although Jane disagrees, but his big failure is behavior: from the first moments, Rochester is cruel to Jane. In story-telling, Rochester’s cruelty means he needs training.

For more on the three goods, see The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel