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What is Subtext?
Subtext is the implicit meaning of a text—the underlying message that is not explicitly stated or shown. Subtext gives the reader information about characters, plot, and the story’s context as a whole. Using subtext is a great way to communicate underlying emotion that a character doesn’t directly voice.
3 Types of Subtext
Writers can use subtext in a number of different ways. Each of these types of subtext serves a different purpose:
- Privilege subtext: Privilege subtext builds tension in a story by letting a reader know crucial information about the plot before a character does. The 1977 film Annie Hall plays with the idea of privilege subtext during a scene in which two characters—a man and a woman—get to know each other. During the scene, subtitles appear on screen detailing each character’s inner monologue.
- Revelation subtext: Revelation subtext slowly builds toward an underlying message throughout the narrative until it is finally revealed. In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald plays with subtext through a pivotal scene with Jay Gatsby, his friend Nick, and Daisy—Nick’s cousin and Gatsby’s long-lost love. In an effort to impress Daisy with the wealth he’s accumulated, Gatsby begins to make a pile of his expensive shirts. As the pile grows, Daisy’s emotion builds. She is confronted with her unhappy marriage, the choices she’s made, and the life she’s missed out on by marrying her husband over Gatsby who has now become a rich man.
- Subtext through questioning: This type of subtext occurs when the reader’s curiosity in the text leads to unanswered questions about the plot or the characters. In The Da Vinci Code, the book’s two protagonists, Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu, must solve a cryptex (a small cylinder with numbers on the outside used to hide secret messages) in order to find out why someone is trying to murder them. Dan Brown gives his readers just enough details about the cryptex and its mysterious contents to make them crave more information—and even make the readers think they can beat the protagonists to deciphering the clues.
How to Add Subtext to Your Writing
Incorporating subtext into a piece of writing can help you create a multi-layered narrative that your readers will appreciate. Here are some tips to get started:
- Study subtext in novels and films. Find examples of subtext in the stories you read and movies or TV shows you watch. Study how it is revealed. Ask yourself, what are the characters not saying? What details is the writer or director omitting but wants you to know? What information lives in the space between the facts, and how much of that information is crucial to the overall story? As a writer, seek new iterations of subtext in pieces of pop culture that you can refer to as you work on your own material.
- Get into your character’s head. When you write the dialogue or behavior of a character, take into account all of the things that can impact what they say and what they do. Do they have a secret? What external pressures are they facing? What is their mission? This will help you write their words and behavior with the underlying subtext driving the plot.
- Write the subtext in your notes. In the margins of your draft, make notes of a scene’s subtext—like what a character is really feeling at that moment, which might conflict with what they’re saying. Keep this subtext in your mind but not on the page.
- Apply the iceberg theory. Write just enough to give readers the information they need to keep reading; hint at the subtext and let them fill in the blanks. Withholding information creates space in the reader’s mind for the growth of questions and ideas. This work on the reader’s part is especially important in sustaining interest.
- Practice with hypothetical characters. A great way to master the power of subtext, especially when writing dialogue or scenes for the first time, is to work on a standalone scene removed from any larger pieces you are working on. Create two characters and write a scene that showcases subtext. Focus on what can be communicated through facial expression, body language, and other cues beyond a prescriptive line of dialogue.
- Think about a real-life event that could contain subtext. Think about events in your own life where hidden meaning or an implied message was conveyed. Subtext in a literary text only works because the same phenomenon exists in real life. Try to write out a scene from your life where subtext was important and try to integrate that into your writing.
- Edit out unnecessary dialogue. Writing subtext in scenes with dialogue often requires a fair amount of editing. Once you have the first draft, see what information you can edit out of dialogue and convey to your reader through subtext. A lot of times, writers have a tendency to overcommunicate meaning through dialogue as opposed to trusting the audience to pick up on underlying themes through subtextual clues.
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