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Monday, April 9, 2012

Being Subtle With Subtext

Fiction is like an iceberg. Only twenty-five percent of it is visible (the words on the page). The other seventy-five percent is known as subtext. Subtext enables your reader to see that more is going on than what is in the text. It enables you to create a richer, more emotion packed story. It’s the part that is tricky to convey, but when you do it right, it makes for a compelling story. 

There are numerous ways to show subtext, this post will cover three of them.

Action and Dialogue

Imagine your character has an issue with his car. The door has a major design flaw that the automaker knew about, but while the character’s car was under warranty, he was never warned it might be an issue later on. Naturally, the door’s status deteriorates after the warranty expires, and he’s left with a hefty repair bill. He goes back to the dealership and asks if anyone during his regular service appointments checked the status of the doors while the car was under warranty.

The last thing the service guy wants to do is answer the question. He’s been coached on how to approach it. He keeps avoiding a direct answer. Meanwhile, he’s shifting nervously on his feet and shooting panicked looks at his co-workers while they pretended he doesn’t exist. He knows he’s failing miserably at keeping to the script, and this makes him more nervous. 

When you write dialogue, ask yourself what is really happening that the character isn’t saying. Then show it. Have your main character interpret the other character’s actions and body language. Occasionally have your character misinterpret them to misdirect the reader. But make sure it’s believable. If your reader can guess the truth behind the subtext, your misdirection will come off as contrived and your character will sound like an idiot. Nothing irks a reader more than when he feels manipulated.


One way to create a richer story is by weaving symbolic subtext into it. This is also a great way to reveal the story’s theme. It’s not hard to do when you consider how many things in our world have been assigned different meanings. For example, we associate red with passion, anger, embarrassment, danger, power. 

Subtext works both at a conscious and unconscious level. When we read a book or watch a movie, some symbols will jump out at us, especially if the creators have done a good job drawing your attention to it. With other symbols, you won’t stop to analyze it. For example, if the scene takes place in a room with green walls, you won’t be thinking that the director wanted to reveal the subtext of life. But you can guarantee someone behind the scenes purposely picked that color because of what it symbolized and not because it was her favorite color. 

In the book Where the Heart Lies, Billie Letts used a tree to represent life and growth. Pregnant seventeen-year-old Novalee is abandoned by her boyfriend at a Walmart store. With nowhere to go, she secretly moves into the store. A woman mistakes her for a young girl she once knew and gives Novalee a Welcome Wagon gift of a buckeye tree. When the tree starts dying, Novalee tries to return it to the woman, who suggests they plant it in her garden, but only if Novalee comes by regularly to take care of it. This is the turning point in Novalee’s life. Ruth Ann’s actions are the first act of kindness Novalee has experienced in a while, and under the mothering of Ruth Ann, Novalee turns her life around. And of course (during the movie), we are reminded this with regular shots of the growing tree. 


The use of imagery, such as a metaphor or simile, can enrich your story by adding subtext. For example (Whispers by Dean Koontz): 

“ . . . Mr. Frye believed that his mother—I think her name was Katherine—had come back from the dead in someone else’s body and was plotting to kill him. He hoped that the Marsden journal would give him a clue about how to deal with her.”

Joshua felt as if a large dose of ice-cold water had been injected into his veins. “Bruno never mentioned such a thing to me.”

If Joshua had said, “Hey man, you’re spooking me here,” the scene would not have been as powerful. He doesn’t want the other person to know just how unnerved his is about the situation. But the reader needs to know this.

It isn’t always necessary to spell out the subtext for your readers. Often it’s more satisfying for the reader if you let him figure it out for himself. That’s the beauty of fiction. It exercises our brains. However, if the subtext is confusing and is going to frustrate the reader, then definitely have a character spell it out. 

Do you enjoy writing subtext? Is it something your focus on when editing a draft?

Stina Lindenblatt writes young adult novels. In her spare time, she’s a photographer and blogging addict, and can be found hanging out on her blog, Seeing Creative.  


Christina Lee said...

This is GREAT, Stina! I like the metaphor of fiction being an iceberg!

Chihuahua Zero said...

Thinking about it, that ice-cold water injected into veins simile is a...chilling one.

Now, where did I put the CSI glasses?