Dive beneath the words ... An exploration of subtext

June 15, 2017

Subtext is a tricky beast to tame, but once you’ve mastered it, a whole new world of nuance opens up. Subtext is the meaning behind the words. The themes and messages that lay beneath what is being said. Actors study subtext to convey the emotion behind the words they speak. Writers must dive beneath the words as well. Think back to a favorite book. One you’ve read multiple times. One that becomes more meaningful with each reading because you uncover something new. Chances are the writer used subtext to layer information into the story.

 

What is subtext? Mr. Dictionary defines it as the underlying theme in a piece of conversation or writing. More simply put, it’s the feeling behind the words. Simple enough, but how do you convey that?

 

Let’s take a look at real life. You might overhear a conversation that goes something like this:

Character 1: “It’s a beautiful day.”

 

Character 2: “It sure is. Never seen the sky so blue.”

 

Character 1: “The weather forecast says it’s supposed to rain tonight.”

 

Character 2: “Yeah? My garden could use the water.”

Taking this conversation at face value, it looks like both parties are happy about the weather. This is where subtext adds depth to the characters who are speaking. Subtext conveys what the character is feeling in contrast to the words they are saying. Not all subtext is contrasting. Sometimes it underscores what the character says.

 

Let’s add what the character is thinking to say to our dialogue.

Character 1: “It’s a beautiful day.” (Oh crud, it’s the neighbor.)

 

Character 2: “It sure is. Never seen the sky so blue.” (I feel like a million bucks.)

 

Character 1: “The weather forecast says it’s supposed to rain tonight.” (Ugh, he’s always so chipper. There must be something wrong with him.)

 

Character 2: “Yeah? My garden could use the water.” (Who slipped salt into his Cheerios? Well, I won’t let him spoil my day!)

How do you translate the subtext into the narrative? Through internals and body language. In real life, ninety percent of communication happens via body language. We interpret meaning from another person’s words from their body position, vocal intonation, and facial expression. It’s one of the first things a baby learns.

 

At only a few hours old, a newborn learns to differentiate between their mother’s face and a stranger’s face. Within a few days, they’ve learned to discriminate between various facial expressions (happy, sad, excited, etc.). As early as five months old, a baby can match a facial expression to its corresponding emotion. This facial recognition helps the baby learn to recognize danger when they begin to explore the world. They use their caregiver's facial expressions as a cue. A worried or fearful expression from a parent/caretaker will prevent most babies from completing an action while a happy or excited expression will result in the child continuing the action.

 

Why is this important? Because understanding how we instinctively interpret body language is one way to layer subtext into your story. A character who folds their arms mid-conversation is signaling that they are not open to what is being said. A character who leans into the speaker or maybe bounces in their seat conveys interest and excitement.

 

We process these interpretations subconsciously during a conversation. They aren’t usually something we actively think about. But, when you are writing, you need to bring those interpretations into conscious thought. You need to think about the meaning behind what the characters are saying. This links back to POV. You write through your main character’s point of view. You interpret the world through them. By layering in the subtext of other characters, you can plant clues, foreshadow events, and highlight an unreliable narrator.

 

Let’s look at our conversation with some body language added in:

Jim stole a glance over his shoulder toward his front door. He plastered a smile on and greeted his neighbor.“It’s a beautiful day.”

 

Derek rocked back on his heels, hands in his pockets, and grinned. “It sure is. Never seen the sky so blue.”

 

“The weather forecast says it’s supposed to rain tonight,” Jim said with a strained smile.

 

“Yeah? My garden could use the water.” Derek whistled a jaunty tune.

I know the example is simplistic, and that you don’t need all of the action and dialogue tags, but notice how the body language adds a new layer to the dialogue. While the conversation stays on the weather, there’s now an undercurrent that says not all is well in paradise. Jim’s body language conveys discomfort while Derek’s conveys happiness.

 

 

Now, let’s go a little deeper. The wonderful thing about deep POV’s is the opportunity to get the thoughts and feelings of the main character. It allows you to layer in additional subtext that helps to create complexity in both the characters and the story. The internals need to add something new to the moment. Random blips of thought like: “Wow!” or “Stupid!” are okay on occasion, but too many of them become distracting. The internals should convey something that the body language or dialogue doesn’t.

 

Let’s give it a try:

Jim stole a glance over his shoulder toward his front door.

 

Can I make it back to the house before Derek sees me? Crud, too late.

 

He plastered a smile on and greeted his neighbor. “It’s a beautiful day.”

 

Derek rocked back on his heels, hands in his pockets, and grinned. “It sure is. Never seen the sky so blue.”

 

“The weather forecast says it’s supposed to rain tonight,” Jim said with a strained smile.

 

This guy’s got to be a serial killer or something. No one is ever that happy about everything.

 

“Yeah? My garden could use the water.” Derek whistled a jaunty tune.

 You don’t need internals with every line of dialogue. I’ve purposely overdone them here to make a point. This example starts to dig into the motivation behind Jim’s body language. It shows us that Derek makes him uncomfortable even though Jim never states it outright in the conversation. Now, because this example is written from Jim’s POV, we don’t get to see Derek’s motivations. That’s okay. You can imply his motivations through the body language and tone of voice.

 

Let’s see if we can work that in:

Jim stole a glance over his shoulder toward his front door.

 

Can I make it back to the house before Derek sees me? Crud, too late.

 

He plastered a smile on and greeted his new neighbor. “It’s a beautiful day.”

 

Derek rocked back on his heels, hands in his pockets, and grinned. “It sure is. Never seen the sky so blue.”

 

“The weather forecast says it’s supposed to rain tonight,” Jim said with a strained smile.

 

This guy’s got to be a serial killer or something. No one is ever that happy about everything.

 

“Yeah?” Derek asked, his tone smug. “My garden could use the water.” He whistled a jaunty tune.

Derek’s tone of voice conveys the idea that knows he’s making Jim uncomfortable, but he doesn’t care. As a writer, it’s a hard thing to trust the reader to interpret the subtext. The first impulse is to tell the reader how to interpret the clues. A clever writer will imply a great deal through subtext and tell the story on multiple levels. They trust the reader to dive beneath the words and uncover the hidden gems beneath.

 

Do you have a great example of subtext? Leave it in the comments below.

 

Happy Writing!

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