Writing

What Is Subtext? Learn the Definition and Role of Subtext in Writing, Plus 5 Tips to Better Incorporate Subtext in Your Work

Written by MasterClass

Apr 29, 2019 • 4 min read

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In day-to-day life, there are often wide gaps between what people say and what they are thinking. These gaps can collectively be referred to as subtext—and they are valuable territory for fiction writers. Ernest Hemingway, who relied on subtext in his minimalistic approach to writing, even coined a term for it: the Iceberg Theory. He believed deeper meanings of character and plot should live below the surface of the text, just as the bulk of an iceberg floats beneath the surface of the water.

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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.

What Are the Different 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. In Woody Allen’s 1977 film Annie Hall, Allen, who co-wrote the screenplay, 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. While the two characters discuss photography, she wonders if she’s smart enough for him—while he wonders what she looks like naked.
  • 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 who chose to marry a wealthy man over Gatsby, who was poor at the time. 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. Author Dan Brown revels in creating puzzles for his readers to solve. In The Da Vinci Code (2003), 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. Brown gives his readers just enough details about the cryptex and its mysterious contents to make them crave more information—and even make them think they can beat the protagonists to deciphering the clues.

What Is the Purpose of Subtext?

In literature, writers include subtext to add depth and complexity to a story in a way that mirrors real life. The purpose of subtext is to:

  • Engage. Subtext draws an audience into a story by providing just enough information that forces them to connect the dots and arrive at conclusions on their own.
  • Reveal. Subtext can also be used to reveal information about the story or characters without stating it outright. Subtext can also foreshadow what’s to come.
  • Develop characters. Subtext often tells readers more about a character than the actual text, revealing motivations for a character’s words or actions. Learn more about how to develop characters in our complete guide here.
  • Build dramatic tension. When subtext conflicts with what a character says or does, it creates tension.
  • Add depth. Subtext adds complexity by adding a thematic undercurrent and multiple layers of meaning to a story.

5 Tips to Better Incorporate Subtext in 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?
  • Get into your character’s head. When you write 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 allows room 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.