Do you know what I hate? Spoilers. A few years back when a new Star Wars movie hit theaters someone on my social media posted a huge spoiler.
Some people just want to see the world burn.
But, why do we get so upset by spoilers? I think because audiences are motivated by the act of discovery. We want to excavate a story. To discover its secrets on our own. That’s why the ending is always so important, and why gossip is so prevalent in the workplace.
Bad writers can spoil this story excavation. How? By not burying any secrets in the text. By giving every detail at the surface level. So, how do good writers avoid this?
They use subtext.
But, before we talk about subtext lets step back and discuss two other important elements- Text, and context. We’ll start with the text.
What is text?
This is the easy one to explain. The text is the words you put down on paper. The dialogue and the narration. Simple right?
The text tells us the basics of a scene. What the characters are doing and saying, what everything looks like. It is the foundation for subtext. So, let’s take a look at a few beats from a scene, and examine the text.
I thought you were baby-sitting
The only reason she baby-sits is
to have a place to…
Laurie suddenly stops and turns back toward the school.
I have a place for that.
I forgot my chemistry book.
Who cares? I always forget my
Laurie glances down the street.
LAURIE’S POV — STATION WAGON
The station wagon slowly moves up the street toward them.
The shape isn’t visible behind the windshield.
ANGLE ON GIRLS
Isn’t that Davon Graham? He’s
don’t think so…
Here the text tells us some basics. We know the characters names, we know what they’re doing, and hear what they’re discussing. But that’s it. To add subtext we first need context.
What is Context?
Context is everything that surrounds the dialogue. That includes the environment of the scene, but it also includes all the events that happened prior to the scene. This is where foreshadowing really starts to pay off.
Consider this line:
A woman walks down the street.
Pretty basic right? We can add context by describing the setting:
An old woman walks down a dark alley. Ahead of her a street light barely flickers. Behind her, she hears a faint sound. Footsteps.
With context, we have a mood. So, next question…
What is a subtext?
A subtext is the marriage of these two elements. The example of the woman in the alley demonstrates how context can add a mood, and therefore a subtext. But, subtext can also show up in dialogue.
Take Laurie’s final line of the scene we first looked at, “don’t think so…” It’s truncated. There’s a pregnant pause. Laurie is nervous about something.
Your next question is probably:
How do I write a subtext?
There are a lot of ways, but let’s focus on three- dialogue, setting, and action. First, though, let’s go back to my earlier example, the three girls walking home, and look at it with the benefit of subtext:
Now, a scene from a movie is not a completely fair comparison. Filmmakers have some tools available that writers don’t. John Carpenter wrote a chilling musical theme for Halloween that conjures dread as soon as you hear it. You can probably thank the odd 5/4 time signature for that.
But, before the movie, there was, a magnificent screenplay written by Debra Hill and John Carpenter. Here’s a link to the text. If you have time, read through it and see if you can spot how Hill and Carpenter add subtext. But let’s get back to those three elements.
Subtext in Dialogue
It’s all about what your characters don’t say. A mistake that a lot of first-time writers make is writing characters that say exactly what they’re thinking. This is okay sometimes, but usually, your characters should be much more subtle, and a lot less direct.
Take a cue from real life. Do people always say exactly what they mean? Let’s say your significant other comes home from work. They throw their phone on the counter, plop down on the couch, rub their forehead, and let out a deep sigh. You say:
“What’s wrong, honey?”
They reply, “Nothing.”
That’s a loaded “nothing.” We know that something is wrong based on the context. So, the first step to creating subtext is having a character say less than exactly what they mean in most cases.
Subtext in Setting
The setting is another tool for building subtext. It can tell us a lot about our character and their current situation. It can also convey the mood of a scene. And, the author can drop hints that bring meaning to the dialogue. So, let’s go back our imaginary SO.
“Nothing” is wrong, but maybe the setting tells us otherwise. We spot their car, through the window, sitting in the driveway. Smoke is rising from the hood, and we can faintly smell burnt engine oil. They toss their phone onto a pile of mail. Bills mostly, second and third notices. It’s late at night because they’ve worked a double shift.
“We can guess from the setting that “nothing,” probably means money.
Subtext in Action
The way a character acts is going to be another way that a writer can convey subtext. Obviously, things like rubbing a forehead, throwing a phone, plopping down in a chair can all convey stress or frustration. But let’s say your SO came into the house smiling, grabbed you around the waist and kissed you on the lips. Or, they came in smiling but walked right past you as they replied to a text on their phone.
In all scenarios, your SO’s behavior conveys a different meaning. And we, as the observer, don’t need to be told, overtly, what that meaning is. Which brings me to my last point:
Respect the Reader
Readers are endlessly clever. They know all the cliches and they can spot a lazy plot point coming from miles. You have to work really hard to surprise them. Don’t patronize readers by spoonfeeding them your ideas. They won’t waste their time on you. There’s too much good fiction out there to read.
A subtext is a tool for burying details below the surface of your story. Readers want to excavate a story. They want to discover a story’s meaning and hidden truths on their own. Remember, reading is not a passive exercise. Don’t turn it into one with your story!
A good subtext is important, and tons of people agree with me. Check out these other resources on subtext:
How to Write Subtext in Dialogue