Lately I’ve been musing on subtext, the things that aren’t explicitly in a text and yet are present by implication. Readers and movie goers like subtext because it allows them to speculate and thus involve themselves in the storytelling. They like it so much that Hollywood has a saying that if the scene is about what the scene is about, you’re in trouble.
For a long time, subtext was a mystery to me, mostly because I can’t shake off the effect of years spent teaching technical writing. My instinct is to say things clearly, preferably more than once, and maybe in a nice bulleted list or diagram. So what was this subtext people were talking about?
Great Writers of Subtext
Then a friend pointed out that Austen (whom I love) is nearly all subtext. Because of social mores governing what young women in particular should say and do, her characters can’t explicitly say much of what’s on their minds. For example, in Persuasion, when Captain Wentworth lifts a troublesome two-year-old off Anne Elliot’s back and then resolutely keeps his distance so she can’t thank him, the reader wonders along with Anne just what the captain’s attention might mean. Because of the subtext, that scene was thrilling enough that I’ve remembered it clearly for years.
More currently, one of my favorite fantasy writers is Megan Whalen Turner, and I recently saw her called The Queen of Subtext. In Whalen’s Attolia series, characters always hold back and hide some part of themselves. The reader can sense the character has secrets, and that drives the reader onward to find out what they are.
Where Subtext Comes From
Then, along came James Scott Bell, giving advice on revision, and to my tech-writerly delight, he talks about subtext in a diagram! According to Bell’s diagram, subtext in a scene comes from
1. Previous story events, either shown or given as backstory. What characters have experienced so far affects how and why they react to unfolding events, and we recognize it even when the writer hasn’t spelled it out.
2. Characters’ relationships. When we know how characters feel about one another, every interaction between them is shot through with more emotion than the simple event in the scene would evoke by itself. Thus the scene become deeper and means more.
3. Theme. Not all writers think of theme when they’re writing, but for most of us, some central thread of meaning emerges in the course of writing. That meaning attaches to events sometimes in ways that aren’t obvious, loading those events with subtext. (Revision & Self-Editing, p. 103)
The reader may understand the subtext more than the characters do or simply be aware that there’s something worth knowing but not yet told (e.g. What happened between Rick and Ilse in Paris, anyway?).
Subtext deepens a scene and engages readers more fully. So give your characters secrets. Give them topics they care about but can’t talk about. Give them hopes they’re too frightened to voice. Make everything affected by what comes before. Make the scene about more than what it’s about.