Let’s talk about subtext. And to talk about it, we’ve got to define that baby. So here goes.
Masterclass defines subtext as:
“In day-to-day life, there are often wide gaps between what people say and what they are thinking. These gaps can collectively be referred to as subtext—and they are valuable territory for fiction writers. Ernest Hemingway, who relied on subtext in his minimalistic approach to writing, even coined a term for it: the Iceberg Theory. He believed deeper meanings of character and plot should live below the surface of the text, just as the bulk of an iceberg floats beneath the surface of the water.”
And Merriam-Webster says:
A literary text often has more than one meaning: the literal meaning of the words on the page, and their hidden meaning, what exists “between the lines”—the subtext. Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, for example, is about the Salem witchcraft trials of the 17th century, but its subtext is the comparison of those trials with the “witch hunts” of the 1950s, when many people were unfairly accused of being communists. Even a social conversation between a man and a woman may have a subtext, but you may have to listen very closely to figure out what it is. Don’t confuse subtext with subplot, a less important plot that moves along in parallel with the main plot.
And there are different types as defined by literary.net
Privilege subtext is subtext in which the audience has certain privileges over the characters in a narrative. In other words, the audience is aware of something the characters are not aware of. For example, imagine a character who has three missed calls from her mother. We as readers cringe as we know she is about to find out her sister has been in a car crash which we have seen but she is not yet aware of.
Revelation subtext is subtext that reveals a certain truth over time throughout a story, leading up to a revelation. For example, imagine a boy who has been trying to figure out what he wants to do when he grows up. He considers firefighting, being a policeman, or even being an actor. Throughout his childhood, though, he enjoys drawing, painting, and sculpting for fun. The revelation subtext here is that his hobby has been his calling all along: he will become an artist.
Subtext through Promise
Subtext through Promise is subtext in which an audience expects certain promises to be kept by the author. In other words, the audience expects the story to run as stories usually do: the audience expects a plot that makes sense and is weaved together, characters who have revelations and change meaningfully, and symbols and motifs which make sense and suit the story. When an author fails to please the audience in this way, the story is considered poorly written or disappointing due to the subtext.
Subtext through Questions
Subtext through Questions is subtext created when readers and audiences have questions about a story, such as how a plot is developing or what a character will do. Naturally, such questions arise in a well-written story as a form of unwritten subtext.
Wow. Right? And of course, we do this all the time in real life too. We argue with our spouses about the proper way to put dishes in the dishwasher, but what we’re really arguing about is how one of us called the other one a dork or something. In a lot of our lives, we have to infer the meaning of things underneath the words that people say or the actions that they do.
Why do we want subtext in our stories?
It’s a bit like showing versus telling. Subtext allows the reader to make connections and learn about the characters and their yearnings and motivations and wants without yelling, “HEY! MY NAME IS SHAUN AND WHAT I WANT IS THE SEX.”
Subtext is actually very sexy. It’s the driving force behind some parts of your story, the blank space where readers get to have an a-ha moment! It’s the epiphany your reader gets to have rather than you saying, “DOH! READER, HE IS LONGING HERE!”
It’s almost like a continuum.
Show is better than tell.
And subtext might be greater than showing.
Subtext is invisible, but real, kind of like the air. You need it to survive. Why? Because it makes the reader participate in the scene rather than just read it. Their brains are turned on. How cool is that? They get to interpret things.
You can build it into your story by:
- Understanding their characters and what they really want and are motivated by.
- Thinking about ways that characters can talk around what it is they want. If Shaun wants sex and says, “I want sex,” then there is no subtext. If he never mentions sex while trying to get it? Then you’ve got subtext.
- Show the characters’ wants and the subtext through emotion rather than explicit dialogue. If Shaun stares longingly at two people canoodling in a car? That shows his want in the subtext.
- Double meanings and evasions. When people are talking and there’s more one way to interpret something? That can be subtext. When they refuse to talk about something? Or when they turn away every time a certain someone comes in a room? That can be subtext.
In order to have subtext you need to:
- Give your characters things they want. They might not even realize they want whatever it is they want, but you, the all-knowing writer, do.
Thinking about that means that:
- Give your character something they don’t want other people to know right then (if they know themselves that they have a want).
WRITING TIP OF THE POD
Subtext is sexy
DOG TIP FOR LIFE
It’s okay to be subtle sometimes.
The music we’ve clipped and shortened in this podcast is awesome and is made available through the Creative Commons License.
Here’s a link to that and the artist’s website. Who is this artist and what is this song? It’s “Summer Spliff” by Broke For Free.
We have a podcast, LOVING THE STRANGE, which we stream biweekly live on Carrie’s Facebook and Twitter and YouTube on Fridays. Her Facebook and Twitter handles are all carriejonesbooks or carriejonesbook. But she also has extra cool content focused on writing tips here.
Carrie is reading one of her raw poems every once in awhile on CARRIE DOES POEMS. And there you go! Whew! That’s a lot!