Subtext can be hard to define, but it’s worth the effort. It makes room for the part of a scene the intelligent reader brings to the story. Of course, the expertise of the clever-and-confident author sparks the reader’s contribution.
Characters often use subtext when blurting out the plain truth would be painful or embarrassing. Writers often use subtext to add humor or to keep the reader involved.
Here’s my fallback example for teaching what subtext is. [It appeared in a previous blog, and here it is again with explanation.) It comes in before-and-after flavors.
Brief Exchange Before Subtext—28 words
John looks up from his laptop. “Are you going to the store this morning?”
“Yes,” Mary says.
“What are you going to buy?” John asks.
“Coffee,” Mary says.
Note: this couple is going to need more than coffee to keep the reader awake enough to turn the page.
Brief Exchange After Subtext—42 Words
John looks up from his laptop. “Are you going to the store this morning?”
Mary nods, grips the edge of the table, leans in toward John and whispers, “If I don’t get a cup of coffee soon, I’m going to kill somebody.” She grabs her purse and heads for the door.
What It’s Good For
I like subtext for two main improvements it brings to the writing: Subtext can pick up the pace of the story, and it makes a story more psychologically satisfying.
Consider the “Before” example above; it’s only twenty-eight words but feels like the characters are just droning on. Really, who cares if Mary ever musters enough oomph to go anywhere? The “After” example—at 42 words long—is no high art, but at least one of the characters is breathing. She wants something. In my quest for morning coffee, I’ve always managed to stop this side of murder, but I understand Mary’s feelings. This version is longer but moves faster. Better pace.
The subtext in the “After” example requires the reader to supply the missing information, and that partnership makes the reading more psychologically satisfying. The savvy reader knows what it means when a person grabs the table and leans into your personal space. The reader understands John may have just been tossing out polite conversation to hide the fact he was deep-diving on his laptop at the breakfast table again–Where ya going? What ya going to buy?
But Mary is fully present. And she wants coffee. Using this technique, the author involved the reader, added action, emotion, and tension and picked up the pace of the exchange. And all this was accomplished in a low-interest business-as-usual part of the scene. [It’s easy to pick up the pace if Mary goes for the ax. That’s a whole different blog.]
Techniques and Examples
The technique used in the example above is: Skip to the Final Answer.
1. Character A asks a question [and we all know where this question is headed], so
2. Character B skips that question and all the interim questions and delivers the meat of the issue with energy.
Similarly, Skip to the Final Answer without questions is called Insinuation and used wisely, it can pack an emotional wallop. Remember the 1997 movie Air Force One (written by Andrew W. Marlowe and directed and co-produced by Wolfgang Petersen)? At the end, when everyone is waiting to hear if the President has been rescued, the announcement arrives in subtext: “We’re changing our call letters to Air Force One!” Instantly the readers/viewers translate this and have the double joy of knowing the president is safe and being involved in figuring out the meaning. The subtext draws the reader into the story world.
The next example is from a movie His Girl Friday (1940 directed by Howard Hawks, adaptation by Charles Lederer, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.) Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell play a formerly married couple, still sparring. The first of these is an example of Insinuation and the Comeback.
- Basically, the first character insinuates something, and the second character refuses to accept it.
- She answers his meaning, not his explicit words. That’s what makes it subtext.
He says: “Where’d you get that hat?”
She grinned and shoved the hat to the back of her head. “I paid twelve dollars for that hat.”
A valuable, but underused (IMHO) subtext technique is the Action-Only Response. Character A asks Character B a direct question. Rather than answer Character A, Character B takes an immediate action that indirectly supplies the answer. For example, in the 1976 movie Network (written by Paddy Chayefsky, directed by Sidney Lumet), Max asks Diana out to dinner, but she doesn’t answer him verbally.
Max: …what’re you doing for dinner tonight?
DIANA pauses in the doorway, and then moves back briskly to the desk, picks up the telephone receiver, taps out a telephone number, waits for a moment –
DIANA (not to Max, but on the phone): I can’t make it tonight, luv, call me tomorrow.
While there are a lot of subtext techniques, I’m going to mention just one more here. This is one my youngest son originally taught me, and it always adds a spark of light humor. It’s Small Word Replacement. CBS’s NCIS forensic scientist Abby refers to drinking straws as something like hollow polypropylene cylindrical tubes.
Another example comes from a 1947 Nero Wolfe novel Too Many Women by Rex Stout. Private detective Archie Goodwin is describing Rosa Bendini. He says that in Italy they’d probably nickname her something like Rosebud, but he thought it more appropriate to call her “a line is the shortest distance between two points, but you can’t prove it by me.” In the current century, authors tend to restrain themselves to shorter phrases, but Archie gives us a good clear example.
Your mission should you choose to accept it:
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to read through some of the quieter pages of your current manuscript. See if you can change the pacing or add a wisp of humor by replacing some spelled-out discussion with subtext.
I like your fun examples. This is something that a handful of writers do intuitively, but anyone can learn with some awareness.
His Girl Friday is a classic and still just as funny and watchable.
Thanks, Jonathan, it’s one of my favorite movies, and it’s loaded with examples of subtext.
Life is short, and this article saved vaballue time on this Earth.
This is great information! I can’t wait to see what comes next! Thank you!
Question: How do you create subtext where there is no dialogue?
Dialogue is a great place to create subtext because people say (and don’t say) the darnedest things. Sometimes a scene does not have any dialogue. Subtext can still be created in the description of the setting.
Consider the following scene from the first few pages of James M. Cain’s “Double Indemnity”. The main character/narrator’s description of the living room foreshadows a murder while at the same time letting the reader know that he did not expect anything out of the ordinary at the beginning.
“I pitched my hat on the sofa. They’ve made a lot of that living
room, especially those “blood-red drapes.” All I saw was a living
room like every other living room in California, maybe a little
more expensive than some, but nothing that any department store
wouldn’t deliver on one truck, lay out in the morning, and have
the credit O. K. ready the same afternoon. The furniture was
Spanish, the kind that looks pretty and sits stiff. The rug was one
of those 12 X 15’s that would have been Mexican except it was made
in Oakland, California. The blood-red drapes were there, but they
didn’t mean anything.”
For more examples, check out the post by Mary Buckham, “Creating Setting and Subtext in Your Fiction”.
In two of Buckham’s examples, the authors convey their POV characters’ emotions (doubtful and conflicted) using detailed descriptions of their surroundings (a shabby hotel interior and the first freeze of winter). In another example, the author foreshadows that something bad is about to happen by describing the blackness of the sky.
Nice examples, Becky. I rarely think of subtext in setting, but it could be powerful. The description of the couch that “sits stiff” is pretty funny once we know a murder is about to happen. The Fred MacMurray character is an insurance salesman, so his whole spiel is to present a particular front to get a customer to do what he wants. The subtext of the scene seems to be that “I’m a phony–you’re a phony–so let’s make some music together.”
It’s a good exercise to watch several of the big scenes of the movie and see how much is delivered on the nose, and how much is delivered in subtext.