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Subtext—Revelation of the Hidden

May 17, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 17, 2011

While a straight declaration from the mouth of one of your characters can be striking, can immediately switch the direction of your story or cause both characters and readers to catch their breaths, there is another writing tool, a subtle wisp of an element, that can prove just as dramatic.

I’m talking about subtext.

And while subtext might not be as immediately striking, it can hit deep, can create a mood, can grab hold of readers in a way that no straightforward declaration can do.

Subtext is exactly what it sounds like—something hidden beneath or behind the words.

It’s anything revealed by you and your characters without direct revelation. Without overt disclosure.

It’s the veiled, the ever-so-lightly veiled, aspects of your story.

Subtext is what your characters are saying without words. It’s the feeling conveyed by a look, the emotion behind words unspoken. It’s the impulse that prods characters to action.

It’s often undefined but not unseen. And if it’s written well, it’s never unfelt. Subtext is experienced by both reader and character. When subtext is introduced, readers are touched.

A man watching a woman, only to turn away when she lifts her gaze to his face, is revealing his attraction. Yet maybe not to her.

The reader catches it, the man’s first awareness of this woman—her body, her laugh, her smile. When the reader sees him smiling at her smile, at those silly things that make her smile, that reader understands, feels, what’s happening. And no words need be spoken. The glances alone are stronger than words.

Actually, dialogue at this point just might ruin the power of the moment.

For another example, consider a woman smiling wistfully as she watches her best friend at her bridal shower, watches from across the room because she can’t bring herself to move closer. The reader feels the first woman’s longing for someone to love, someone who’ll make her as happy as her friend is. She doesn’t need to make a scene, complain about not being loved. She doesn’t have to whisper her loneliness to another woman at the party.

If the writer works the subtext and the scene well, the reader will feel the tug of wistfulness, will feel the ache when the woman hides her hands behind her back and rubs her empty ring finger. The reader may become teary-eyed herself when the bride is toasted by her friends, maybe even toasted by our lonely woman, a woman with tears in her eyes as she congratulates her friend on finding a perfect love.

Readers will actually feel the woman’s heaviness and the heartbreak when the fiance arrives to pick up his bride-to-be, when she sees the way he looks at the woman he loves.

A subtle or even a sharp turn of the head so the woman doesn’t have to watch a love she doesn’t have can cause the reader’s heart to clench, to stutter, to ache.

And again, no words have to be mentioned.

Subtext cuts deep, goes way beyond surface events and dialogue. It creates some of the most heartfelt moments of your stories.

You should be using subtext in many of your novels.

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Have I given you a clear picture of what subtext is?

~  Subtext is the unspoken but revealed feelings and history and dreams of your characters.

~  Subtext is strong because it reveals truth—true emotions and true thoughts and unfeigned motivations.

Characters can lie—to others and to themselves—through their dialogue. But their thoughts are more honest. When readers see into a character’s mind, they see what drives the character, what moves him, what keeps him at his duty way beyond the time that others would quit.

~  Subtext is the reality of a character’s life that’s seldom brought to the surface to be hashed out or examined. But what is revealed in subtext is key to who a character is and what he wants.

~  Subtext instantly identifies what’s important for a character, what’s on the character’s mind, or what is pushing him to act or speak as he does.

~  It’s the words and emotions and thoughts hidden beneath dialogue and action.

~  It’s what the reader sees when a character says one thing but obviously means something else.

Characters don’t say what they mean for several reasons: doing so might hurt another character, or it might hurt them; they’re unsure of what they’re feeling; they don’t know how to articulate what they’re feeling; they fear what will happen, what they may lose, if they speak their minds.

Subtext that runs through a story brings depth and dimension. It ramps up tension and conflict. It’s much deeper, more fundamental to a character’s traits or personality than is surface revelation. Because what underlies the text is not explicitly stated, the reader might have to look harder, listen closer. He might have to accept that there’s more to a moment, a scene, an altercation, or an exchange than what meets the eye. This acknowledgement of depth can keep a story from feeling flat and one-dimensional.

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Subtext in dialogue
Subtext can be revealed in ways that I’ve already mentioned, but subtext can also come through dialogue.

A character who says one thing but implies another is using subtext. A man who argues with his wife about the time she spends away from home, shopping, may actually be bringing up the affair she had two years earlier when she was also spending time away from home.

The man may never mention the affair, the other man’s name, or the fallout from when the man bragged of the affair to the husband, but that affair could be driving every word and the emotion behind them.

Nate slammed the cabinet door and then opened and slammed another.

“Geez, Leslie, you’d think with all the shopping you do, every single day, that there’d be something to eat in the house.”

“Not every day, Nate. Never every day.”

He peered into the fridge, then crossed his arms, tapped his foot. “No beer? You’d think th—”

“Beer’s in the other refrigerator. As always.”

He closed the door, leaned against it. “You always have a ready answer, don’t you, babe? Always ready with a logical answer.”

There’s much more to this exchange than what they’re actually saying. The shopping and beer are not even the true topics. They serve as an excuse to rehash old problems, yet they don’t provide a forum for the characters to truly face and resolve those problems.

Thus the conflict.

Characters avoid the problem issue while at the same time poking at it, as though they were picking at a scab or pushing at a tender spot on the body. Doing so hurts and irritates, but they just can’t stop. Because nothing is directly addressed, the problem is never solved and may only grow more troublesome as the story progresses.

Subtext and the clueless
Because subtext ramps up readers’ emotions, it can have them feeling sympathy for a clueless character.

Writers can use subtext to reveal who the villain is without other characters finding out. So, while readers see the motivations and true heart of a character through his facial expressions or the acts he makes when others aren’t watching, other characters may be oblivious.

This use of subtext can put readers firmly on the side of the clueless character. They want him to know what’s going on, may even want to tell him, but he may remain oblivious.

Of course, you have to play this skillfully. If a character should catch on but doesn’t, the reader will not enjoy his own knowledge. Characters can only be oblivious to another character’s wrongdoings or machinations if it makes sense that they are in the dark. If you expect your detective to solve a mystery, he can’t be a fool.

Make a character unknowing. Don’t make him stupid.

Specialized subtext
Subtext has been used for centuries and sometimes for purposes other than as a simple device for fiction. It’s been used to hide/reveal political or religious messages.

Got a message too dangerous to say? Put it into subtext so that readers who are clued in will know what you’re talking about while at the same time making your assertions difficult to prove by those not in on the plan or plot or ploy.

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Use of subtext to reveal motivations and true feelings can be done in almost any situation or setting.

Imagine a blind date or job interview where each of the two parties brings his or her own thoughts to the moment.

A job applicant may be worried that he ate onions for lunch, that he lost a button from his jacket, that his cold makes him sound nasally and unprofessional.

The interviewer may be thinking of the phone call from his son’s school reminding him of a meeting with the principal, he may be worried that the applicant he hires will be more educated and may soon replace him, or he may know that the interview is a waste of time because the job has already been promised to the boss’s sister-in-law.

The applicant may come across cool, maybe even a bit stiff, but on the inside he could be a mess, nervous and ready to throw up.

Revelation of this dichotomy ramps up tension and often leads to conflict or misunderstanding.

So . . .

What can subtext be used for?

To tell readers something that the characters don’t know

To add tension and conflict

To hide/reveal political or religious messages

To reveal a character’s true motivation or emotions

To add depth to story

What are topics that work well as motivation for subtext?

Sexual attraction

Shared history

The last argument (any disagreement)

Shared loss of a child

Marriage or business betrayal

Health issues

Events at home, at the office, in the world

Differences in firmly held beliefs

Long-running family feud

Anything that could set a character on edge—a crying baby on a plane, relentless road construction and noise, a migraine, a violent storm, death of a loved one, a business setback, being responsible for someone’s death (by accident)

Any topic that characters don’t want to confront head on can be used for subtext. Any topic that reveals character and/or motivation can be used for subtext. Any subject one character can use to needle another character is perfect for subtext.

Anything that agitates a character, that gets under his skin, is viable  for the creation of subtext and conflict.

*******

Everyone hides something, whether from others or from themselves.

Subtext is a strong tool for putting that tendency to hide problems to use in fiction.

If you’ve never added subtext to your stories, why not try today? Find a scene, maybe one that’s flat, that’s all surface knowledge, and add a touch of subtext.

You know the history of your characters. Use a tidbit from that history to drive a scene, to stir conflict, to add tension in a way that grabs the reader even as it incenses your characters.

Reveal what’s been hiding in your story all along.

Bring out the subtext.

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4 Responses to “Subtext—Revelation of the Hidden”

  1. James Chesky says:

    I love the use of subtext, but is it subtext when what the speaker of the dialogue is saying is having an unrealized impact (unrealized by the speaker) on the listener. The reader would know it, but for dramatic effect the speaker is your unwitting antagonist.

    • James, are you asking if it’s still subtext if the speaker isn’t aware of the response created by his words?

      My answer is yes, it’s still subtext. The speaker doesn’t have to note a response to his words for subtext to be there. The speaker doesn’t even have to be fully aware that there’s something beneath his words. That is, it’s likely he’d deny he was “getting at something” with his choice of words.

      If character two is responding to character one’s words—maybe character two is the viewpoint character and the reader hears his thoughts in response to the other character’s words—the reader sees the response and understands whether character two is responding to the dialogue itself or to the subtext. Character one may not even know there is a response. The character doing the speaking doesn’t have to know the effect of his words. He certainly never has to acknowledge the subtext.

      I’m not sure if I’m addressing the issue you brought up. If not, set me straight.