How to Write What’s Not Written (Subtext)



Subtext: *tries to be invisible*

 

I’ve been seeing a number of stories lately that are lacking in subtext. And honestly, it’s no surprise. Writing subtext (or, I guess not writing it) is flipping difficult to 1) understand 2) do. I had read about writing subtext like over two years ago, and only now do I feel like I’m starting to understand it and have conscious control over it. So, I’m going to attempt to try to explain how to do it.

What is Subtext?

The best definition of subtext, in my opinion, is this: subtext is what’s not said; it is what is implied.
Remember my humor post from a few weeks back? I talked about how Lemony Snicket had a specific technique he employed for some of his humor. He states the obvious. And then strongly implies the un-obvious.
So subtext is what is implied. Look at this example of it that I just made up:

Robert, not bothering to raise his hand, spouted out an inappropriate joke.

“Robert, I don’t want to hear that kind of language in my class,” Mr. Henderson said, but the ends of his lips twitched up. “That’s very offensive.” He failed to suppress a full-blown grin.

Here, we can tell that the teacher found whatever Robert said funny, but neither he nor the narrator comes out and tells the reader that. Instead it’s implied by his body language and behavior–what he doesn’t say. What Mr. Henderson actually says to Robert is at odds with how Mr. Henderson acts.

The fact he claims to find the joke offensive is straightforward. But we know by the subtext, he thinks it’s funny. That’s subtext. And chances are it’s a lot more interesting and entertaining and powerful than being forward about what’s happening. Or at least, it gives us a different kind of character. Here is a straightforward version of my earlier example.

Robert, not bothering to raise his hand, spouted out an inappropriate joke.

Mr. Henderson laughed. “That’s funny, but you shouldn’t say stuff like that in class.”

The second example isn’t wrong, per say, but see how the two examples are different from each other? The subtext example has an added layer. It’s complex. It also tells us something about the character (that’s not on the page), Mr. Henderson is trying to be what he thinks is a good teacher by covering up his true reaction.

Recently I ran into some stories that weren’t wrong, per say, but I felt like subtext would have taken them to the next level and made the conversations in them much more interesting. Everything in the story was surface level. But readers love stories that have an undercurrent in them.

And subtext doesn’t just happen with characters. It can happen with other elements in a story, like setting. We can imply significant things about setting that aren’t mentioned straight out in the text.

Why Use Subtext?

Whether or not we want to admit it, whether or not we are even conscious of it, we all have things we don’t want others to know about us. All of our characters do too. Using subtext makes our characters and story feel more well-rounded and realistic. This is especially true when dealing with adult characters. By the time we are adults, most of us have learned not to say certain things straight-out. If we don’t like someone, we’ve been taught not to tell them bluntly. If we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, we won’t say our true opinions directly. Human beings, especially adult human beings, work off subtext daily.It’s strange, but often when we communicate our feelings directly, we lose tension. It’s what’s not being said that creates tension. It creates anticipation and apprehension, keeps us interested because of what’s boiling under the surface. When a character (or narrator) comes out and tells us straight out, “I’m angry,” the tension breaks, and we move into kind of a denouement about dealing with that anger. Being indirect creates tension, so if you want that reader to feel that tension, it’s usually best to use subtext. Often you can escalate the subtext to escalate tension.

With subtext, you can craft unreliable narrators and blind characters, reveal subconscious or suppressed thoughts and emotions, create powerful revelations, and whip out effective humor.

How it Works

In order to understand how to write it, I’m going to delve into an example that I think uses subtext very well. Poems, good poems, often depend on subtext. That’s one reason why you have to read the poem several times to get it. You have to “read between the lines.” Today, I’m going to refer to the lyrics of Hozier’s “Take me to Church.” Sure, it’s a song, but it’s definitely a poem. One reason so many people like the song is because of the powerful subtext of the lyrics. Here they are for reference:
My lover’s got humour
She’s the giggle at a funeral
Knows everybody’s disapproval
I should’ve worshipped her sooner

If the heavens ever did speak
She’s the last true mouthpiece
Every Sunday’s getting more bleak
A fresh poison each week

“We were born sick,” you heard them say it

My Church offers no absolutes
She tells me, “Worship in the bedroom.”
The only heaven I’ll be sent to
Is when I’m alone with you—

I was born sick,
But I love it
Command me to be well
Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen.

[Chorus 2x:]
Take me to church
I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies
I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife
Offer me that deathless death
Good God, let me give you my life

If I’m a pagan of the good times
My lover’s the sunlight
To keep the Goddess on my side
She demands a sacrifice

Drain the whole sea
Get something shiny
Something meaty for the main course
That’s a fine looking high horse
What you got in the stable?
We’ve a lot of starving faithful

That looks tasty
That looks plenty
This is hungry work

[Chorus 2x:]
Take me to church
I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies
I’ll tell you my sins so you can sharpen your knife
Offer me my deathless death
Good God, let me give you my life

No Masters or Kings
When the Ritual begins
There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin

In the madness and soil of that sad earthly scene
Only then I am Human
Only then I am Clean
Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen.

[Chorus 2x:]
Take me to church
I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies
I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife
Offer me that deathless death
Good God, let me give you my life

Okay, so there are some different interpretations of this song, but I think most people will agree that this is a song about a person who yearns to be “good” by religious standards, but who has a lover and the speaker’s (sexual or romantic) relationship with her is considered sinful. But all of that is implied. How?Look at the words and phrases Hozier is using. They are charged with connotations (mostly religious). He is consciously using words that carry specific, but implied, meanings. Some of them are even symbolic. By using religious words and phrases (“worshiped her sooner,” “last true mouthpiece,” “Goddess”) in reference to his lover, we can tell that the speaker views her and feels like his relationship with her is something holy.

He is using words and phrases with negative and harmful connotations when talking about his church, so, it’s implied that the church’s teachings are damaging to him, or, at least against what he desires (this relationship).

But, this gets more complex. He’s supposed to be feeling edified and holy in church, but he feels edified and holy when he’s committing “sin” with his lover. The speaker is aware of this. BUT he’s not fully aware that the church he is attending is corrupt (“That’s a fine looking high horse/What you got in the stable?/We’ve a lot of starving faithful/That looks tasty/That looks plenty/This is hungry work”).

He understands it on some level, like a subconscious level. He’s aware of what is going on, but he is blind to the corruption. He is blind to the corruption because he has such a strong desire to be “good” by his church’s standards (“Command me to be well/Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen,” “Offer me my deathless death/Good God, let me give you my life”). Hozier creates this effect by pairing contradictions (more on that later)

So

  • Hozier uses words and phrases charged with connotations (words and phrases that imply something)
  • The way he structures his lyrics also creates subtext. Subtext usually (always?) uses contradictions, of one kind or another.

Subtext happens when the audience comes to a conclusion that explains those contradictions.

How to Write What’s Not Written

Subtext uses words and phrases that imply something. Implication comes from their connotations and where and how they appear structurally in the writing. Subtext uses contradictions. The audience tries to explain those contradictions. Their conclusion completes the subtext.

Confused? If so, don’t worry. Yet. I’m going to break it down and look at more examples.

Implication

Subtext is a balancing act. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so tricky to master. We need to imply something strong enough for the reader to pick up on, without going overboard or saying it straight out.
So we have to be very careful with our word choice and phrases. We have to have full control over language.

Let’s say we want to show that our character, Jasmine, thinks that our protagonist Shelly is incompetent, and we want it to be subtext. We don’t want to come out and say that Jasmine thinks this because it’s more powerful if we imply it. (Remember how I said what’s not said creates tension? It can also help us feel more empathy for the character.) We have to plan out Jasmine’s dialogue to show this.

So how are we going to show that Jasmine thinks Shelly is incompetent, without being straightforward about it? Here is one way I came up with: Jasmine belittles Shelly by talking down to her. Let’s say that both characters are writers, but Jasmine has won awards for her writing. She’s an international bestselling author. Shelly is a writer too, but hasn’t had the same level of recognition. Part of the scene might go like this:

“You wouldn’t know this, but I don’t do much writing anymore,” Jasmine said. “Those days are over. I use what are called ghost writers, Shelly. People I hire to do the writing for me. I like to sit back and brainstorm a few concepts with a glass of champagne. Do you know what ‘brainstorming’ is?”

“Yes,” Shelly said.

Jasmine simpered. “You’re smarter than I was expecting.”

Jasmine went to Shelly’s bookcase and picked up Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White. “This is one of the best guides to learning how to write,” Jasmine explained to Shelly, though Shelly had read the book five times. “It’s been a bestseller for decades. Did you know that?”

See how phrases and word choices imply that Jasmine thinks Shelly is stupid? See how the question “Do you know what ‘brainstorming’ is?” is like a slap in the face?

Here are some phrases and words that imply what Jasmine thinks in bold, with explanations in brackets:

You wouldn’t know this, [implies that Shelly is lacking knowledge about something. It also carries a kind of accusatory judgmental tone by having Jasmine tell Shelly what Shelly doesn’t know] but I don’t do much writing anymore,” Jasmine said. “Those days are over. I use what are called ghost writers, Shelly. People I hire to do the writing for me. [Implies that Jasmine assumes Shelly doesn’t know what ghost writers are. Jasmine feels like she even has to give a definition of them] I like to sit back and brainstorm a few concepts with a glass of champagne. [Implies that Jasmine feels she has a luxurious life that Shelly doesn’t, perhaps one that Jasmine thinks Shelly wouldn’t even understandDo you know what ‘brainstorming’ is? [By using an entry-level writing term (brainstorming), we illustrate just how little Jasmine thinks Shelly knows]”

Side Note: Writing this way has a stronger emotional impact on the reader. We empathize with Shelly, because we are experiencing what she is feeling instead of reading about it. Here is a one-line example without subtext to compare to.

“You’re an idiot, Shelly,” Jasmine said.

It has less complexity. It also lacks emotional impact, because it doesn’t have that tension.

Contradiction

Subtext happens when the audience tries to make sense of contradictions, of one sort or another.
In my example, the context can help set-up the contradictions. The audience goes into the scene knowing that both characters are professional writers. And yet, they witness Jasmine talking to Shelly like Shelly knows nothing about the writing industry. Why would Jasmine do that? They are both writers. “Oh,” the audience says (if only on a subconscious level), “because Jasmine thinks Shelly is incompetent, below her.”
The audience finishes the subtext. They draw conclusions from “between the lines.”
What about this kind of contradiction?

“Do you know what ‘brainstorming’ is?”

“Yes,” Shelly said.

Jasmine simpered. “You’re smarter than I was expecting.”

It’s kind of an interesting character contradiction here. We can assume from the question Jasmine asks that she doesn’t think Shelly knows anything about the writing world. So then why would Jasmine say Shelly was smart? “Oh,” the audience says, “because she assumed Shelly was even dumber.”

In the book Character, Emotion, and Viewpoint, Nancy Kress talks about using contradictions this way. In particular, she focuses on characters who have a deceptive mask. They are trying to fake one emotion while they feel another. I’m going to use her example of a boy named Phillip who just got a tattoo on his ankle. “Phillip is pretending to resist but is secretly delighted with all the attention.”

“Let’s look at your foot,” Singer said.

“No,” answered Phillip. He jumped into bed quickly.

The boy in the next cubicle was looking round the corner, and at the words he slipped in. They made for Phillip and tried to tear the bedclothes off him, but he held them tightly. His grin flashed in the gloomy room.

“Why can’t you leave me alone?”

Singer seized a brush and with the back of it beat Phillip’s hand clenched on the blanket. Philip’s nerves thrilled; they were so eager!

“Why don’t you show us your foot quietly?”

“I won’t.”

And the example goes on. But look at the contradictions in it.

 “Let’s look at your foot,” Singer said.

“No,” answered Phillip. He jumped into bed quickly.

The boy in the next cubicle was looking round the corner, and at the words he slipped in. They made for Phillip and tried to tear the bedclothes off him, but he held them tightly. His grin flashed in the gloomy room.

“Why can’t you leave me alone?”

Singer seized a brush and with the back of it beat Phillip’s hand clenched on the blanket. Philip’s nerves thrilled; they were so eager!

“Why don’t you show us your foot quietly?”

“I won’t.”

The audience tries to make sense of the contradiction. “Oh,” they say, “He’s pretending he doesn’t want people to see his tattoo, but he’s actually enjoying it.”

Kress writes, “Note that bodily reactions and inner thoughts trump actions and dialogue. The body doesn’t lie.” She’s right in explaining this example. And yes, the body doesn’t lie, but inner thoughts can.

Subtext at Work

The Unreliable Narrator

Subtext is how writers craft unreliable narrators. The unreliable narrator happens when the audience completes the subtext by coming to a different conclusion than the narrator (or viewpoint character) portrays. Implications and contradictions clue the audience into the narrator’s/viewpoint character’s perspective as being untrustworthy.

Here, I will try my hand at it. I’m flipping my earlier example so that Jasmine is our viewpoint character and I’m telling it in first person.

“You wouldn’t know this, but I don’t do much writing anymore,” I said. “Those days are over. I use what are called ghost writers, Shelly. People I hire to do the writing for me. I like to sit back and brainstorm a few concepts with a glass of champagne. Do you know what ‘brainstorming’ is?”

“Of course,” Shelly said.

I smiled. “You’re smarter than I was expecting.”

I liked Shelly. I really did. I liked her a lot, and why wouldn’t I? She had a great . . . personality. She wore a dress that looked like it belonged on my five-year-old niece. It had the same snotty stains. It was cute, right? I liked her wide-set eyes and hulking nose, so big and round, it’d make any of the clowns at the rodeo jealous. She had the body shape of a potato. A cute, lumpy, rotting potato. Who didn’t love french fries?

So Shelly was perfectly adorable.

I went to Shelly’s bookcase and picked up a novel that had a spaceship on the cover. “Uugh, don’t tell me you read this.” I flipped through the pages. “I guess it’s okay. For someone like you.”  I put the book back.

I spotted Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White. “This is one of the best guides to learning how to write,” I explained to Shelly. “It’s been a bestseller for decades. Did you know that?”

While Jasmine keeps insisting that she likes Shelly, we can tell from the phrases she uses that she actually doesn’t, especially when she says “For someone like you.” She’s an unreliable narrator. There are different types of unreliable narrators and different approaches, but they all use subtext. I would imagine all use implication and contradiction. Here are the implications and contradictions I used in my example:

 

  • If Jasmine truly liked Shelly, she wouldn’t feel the need to say the fact so many times. It wouldn’t even cross her mind to say basically the same sentence three times in a row.
  • A cute dress that is described to have snotty stains? A hulking nose that makes clowns jealous is delivered as a compliment? A cute, rotting, lumpy potato for a body shape? Those are all contradictions. Unless you have a character with a very unique background and view of beauty–like a goblin or a character from Halloween Town.
  • “I guess it’s okay. For someone like you.” This suggests that it’s not okay for most people, and that Shelly is “other,” someone weird, which seems to go against Jasmine’s insistence that she likes Shelly.

We can’t trust that Jasmine is being honest with us. Something seems off about her claim that she likes Shelly.

 

The Blind Character

You can also use subtext to show when characters are blind (as in ignorant or naive or unaware) to something. Watch how I do that with Shelly in this revamped example.

“You wouldn’t know this, but I don’t do much writing anymore,” Jasmine said. “Those days are over. I use what are called ghost writers, Shelly. People I hire to do the writing for me. I like to sit back and brainstorm a few concepts with a glass of champagne. Do you know what ‘brainstorming’ is?”

“Yes.” Shelly had learned about it long ago.

Jasmine looked Shelly over. “You’re smarter than I was expecting.”

Shelly beamed. “Thanks.” She couldn’t believe it. She had just impressed Jasmine, an international bestselling sensation. Jasmine had said Shelly was smart!

Jasmine went to Shelly’s bookcase and picked up Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White. “This is one of the best guides to learning how to write,” Jasmine explained to Shelly, though Shelly had read the book five times. “It’s been a bestseller for decades. Did you know that?”

She did. She knew that already. Jasmine would be so surprised if Shelly told her she’d even read the whole thing, front to back.

The tricky part in doing this sort of thing is again, balance. How dimwitted is your character? You can have a character who is blind, but not dimwitted. They might be blinded by inexperience. They might by blinded by an emotional attachment, like love or admiration for that person. Here, I think Shelly is beginning to drift into the dimwitted range, which isn’t wrong if that’s what I’m going for. Look at Forrest Gump. He’s dimwitted, but he’s still a great character. I could tweak my example some more to make Shelly still sound intelligent, but blind at the same time.

The heavier you imply your subtext, and the more oblivious your character seems to be to it, the more dimwitted they become. So, if you find your character coming across as too dimwitted in these situations, decrease the gap between what is implied and what is understood. Maybe change it so the implication isn’t as strong, but it’s there. Or, maybe your character is aware of some kind of subtext, but they don’t understand it, or they come to the wrong interpretation of it, or they willing choose to ignore it, and we see that.

Check out this example:

“You wouldn’t know this, but I don’t do much writing anymore,” Jasmine said. “Those days are over. I use what are called ghost writers, Shelly. People I hire to do the writing for me. I like to sit back and brainstorm a few concepts with a glass of champagne. Do you know what ‘brainstorming’ is?”

Shelly laughed. Who wouldn’t know what “brainstorming” was? And ghost writers? Jasmine was a hoot!

Jasmine went to Shelly’s bookcase and picked up Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White. “This is one of the best guides to learning how to write,” Jasmine explained to Shelly. “It’s been a bestseller for decades. Did you know that?”

Shelly laughed. “Der, no, I’ve never heard of that in my life,” she joked. “Is that a book?”

Jasmine gave her a cold, sympathetic smile. She patted Shelly’s hand.

Here, we have Shelly coming to the wrong interpretation of Jasmine’s subtext. But the last lines in particular, let us know what Jasmine really means. The context of the rest of the scene, in the story, should give us that too. But our viewpoint character is blind to it. This overlaps with or works with the unreliable narrator.

So when working with blind characters, consider these things:

Why are they blind?

  • Inexperience?
  • Ignorance?
  • Emotional attachment?
  • Previously made judgments or assumptions or expectations?
  • Do they refuse to consider the reality or what’s happening? Are they in denial?
How are they blind?
  • Are they completely oblivious?
  • Do they misinterpret what’s going on?
  • Do they push away reality?

Powerful Revelations

You can use subtext to create powerful revelations for your audience. Instead of relying on the character having a revelation (which can still be effective, but has a different feel to it), you can use subtext to let the audience have a revelation about the story.  Remember, the audience completes the subtext. They are the ones who put two-and-two together, so that moment of revelation happens inside of them, not on the page. (This tactic can overlap with dramatic irony.) When done well, the effect usually leaves the audience with a feeling that their head might explode with realization. I don’t have an example for this one, because I think it could take pages to render the experience, but I’ll give an example where some readers may have experienced this.

 

In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Katniss is blind (by previously made judgments) to Peeta’s feelings for her. Through pretty much the entire book, Katniss misinterprets his actions. Since we are in Katniss’s viewpoint, our perspective of Peeta is shaped by her. She tells us what kind of person Peeta is, gives us her interpretation of him as we are introduced to his character. But as the novel progresses, the subtext that Peeta actually genuinely likes her gets stronger. The implications get stronger. At some point, the reader, not Katniss, has the revelation that Peeta is actually in love with Katniss. There is this shift in context and the reader’s viewpoint begins to actually deviate from the viewpoint character’s (another post on that intentional deviation later).
In order to create this effect, the subtext has to get stronger and stronger, by implications, contradictions, and its placement structurally in the text. The closer you pair contradictions, the more obvious the subtext becomes. So, to begin with, you might want to have the contradiction spread over pages and chapters, but as the subtext escalates, you place contradictions closer and closer together, so it becomes more obvious. The moment of revelation might happen when contradictions are nearly on top of each other, only a paragraph or a sentence away, and we see them being unaddressed or misinterpreted by our viewpoint character again. The context shifts. The reader comes to a mind-blowing conclusion that the character or narrator doesn’t see.
Of course, this takes a careful balancing act. Make the subtext too obvious and your character too blind and for too long and the audience can get frustrated and irritated with the character’s stupidity (unless, of course, you use that stupidity of your character intentionally as an entertaining advantage). If I have all the contradictions and misinterpretations all stacked together, heavily implied from the get-go, it’s going to be annoying to watch my character take the length of a book to come to a conclusion the audience got to on the first page.
Whenever you have a “fail” at writing subtext, one of the first places to look at is the size of your gaps: gaps between contradictions, gaps between implications and a character’s understanding of them, gaps between how heavy the subtext is and how oblivious your character is.

Humor

I’ve heard that some of the best jokes told are those where the audiences tells the joke to themselves, meaning, the audience discovers the “punch line.” It’s not in the text. Shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation use this kind of humor all the time. We understand the joke because of the subtext–the characters’ behavior and body language–and it’s funnier because we, as the audience, come to the conclusion of the joke. It’s what’s not said, and the way it’s not, that’s funny.
To learn more about this type of humor, check out my post on writing humor.
To do this, again, don’t forget about the balancing act! Make the gap between what is stated and implied too obvious and in-your-face and it can get annoying. I remember one specific scene in Parks and Recreation, where Leslie’s best friend Ann is going to start dating a guy Leslie had a one-night-stand with. Leslie keeps saying she is fine with it, but she keeps eating massive amounts of whipped cream as she says it (see the subtext there?) The idea for the subtext was fine, but the camera crew kept zooming in and zooming in on the huge spoonfuls of whipped cream. Sure, one zoom in would have been fine, but they did it so much, so obviously, that it was like the narrator was saying “Did you get it? Did you get it? Do you see this subtext? Do you get the joke?” At that point, it was like, you had to be an idiot not to get the joke. It was delivered too heavy-handedly. They barely left any room for me to come to a conclusion about the joke and laugh.
Imply enough for the reader to get it, but not so much that you’ve basically explained the joke to them.
The moment where the audience comes to a conclusion about the subtext-joke, is the moment they laugh.

Conscious vs. Subconscious Characters

Remember how I referred to Nancy Kress earlier in this article? I quoted her: “Note that bodily reactions and inner thoughts trump actions and dialogue. The body doesn’t lie.”

But sometimes a character’s inner thoughts do lie, like in my unreliable narrator example:

I liked Shelly. I really did. I liked her a lot, and why wouldn’t I? She had a great . . . personality. She wore a dress that looked like it belonged on my five-year-old niece. It had the same snotty stains. It was cute, right? I liked her wide-set eyes and hulking nose, so big and round, it’d make any of the clowns at the rodeo jealous. She had the body shape of a potato. A cute, lumpy, rotting potato. Who didn’t love french fries?

That’s all Jasmine’s inner thoughts. And they’re lies! Aren’t they? She doesn’t like Shelly. So what’s the deal?

Side note: I think it’s important that I say again that Nancy Kress wasn’t talking directly about subtext (but indirectly), and she was right in what she was talking about and her example. So she wasn’t “wrong,” but I am referring to her.

Your character may or may not be fully conscious of whatever they are hiding in their subtext. In the Mr. Henderson example back at the starting of this article, Mr. Henderson knows he thinks the joke Robert said is funny, so he is consciously trying to cover it up. In the unreliable narrator example, Jasmine may be subconscious to the fact she doesn’t like Shelly, but it sounds more like she’s somewhat aware of it and she’s trying to convince herself (or the audience) otherwise. She is consciously trying to prove that she likes Shelly, but her subconscious slips tell us the opposite.

Conscious:
I liked Shelly. I really did. I liked her a lot.
It was cute, right?
I liked her . . . eyes

Subconscious:
wide-set
hulking
lumpy
rotting

Note: What is subconscious, seems to appear “in passing.” Jasmine described Shelly’s nose as “hulking” in passing. What she thought consciously was direct: “I liked Shelly. I really did.”

When it comes to the conscious and subconscious, I think it’s helpful to think of it more as a spectrum than an “either-or.” Characters may be somewhat conscious or somewhat subconscious. The subconscious tends to tell more truth. The conscious may be what character wants to see. Jasmine may want to believe she likes Shelly. Or maybe she just wants the audience to believe that, and she’s pretending (poorly) in front of us.

Again, with the conscious vs. subconscious, we pair opposites into contradictions, like Jasmine did. In “Take me to Church,” we have negative descriptions surrounding the speaker’s church, but when it comes to addressing the church directly, the speaker appears to believe the church can redeem him. Like I mentioned earlier, he is somewhat aware that the church has a negative impact; he describes it as harmful, but he dismisses that idea and consciously embraces the church, as we can see, when he addresses it directly. “Command me to be well/Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen. . . . Offer me that deathless death/Good God, let me give you my life.”

So the subconscious slips in. The conscious is direct. It’s louder. See the kind of control over words and language you have to have to have control over subtext? It’s insane. It takes insane skill.

Earlier I talked about how a character could basically “choose” to be blind. They may be in denial. This can happen within themselves. They may be in denial about what’s in their subconscious. They may be in denial about being prideful. They might be in denial about how they feel toward a coworker. Those things are suppressed. You can look into how to render suppressed thoughts and feelings. In my unreliable narrator example, Jasmine’s dislike toward Shelly is suppressed (or at least, it’s trying to be.)

It’s funny about human behavior, but often when we try to suppress something, we try to compensate for it. The result is that we usually way over-compensate. So Jasmine doesn’t say she likes Shelly once, she says it three times.

An alternative, is that we avoid it. In the movie The Village, one character has romantic feelings toward another, but he tries to suppress them. He does this by avoiding the woman he likes. He makes a point to avoid even touching her, so he politely gets out of shaking her hand when she holds it out to him.

 

The book, the Emotion Thesaurus can be helpful in writing subtext, because for each emotion, there is a section and explains how people try to suppress or compensate for that emotion.

You might have a character who only suppresses certain emotions in public. What if the guy from The Village went home and told a family member all about his crush on this woman? But he doesn’t want the woman or anyone else to know, so he’s suppressing it in public. Or, you might have a character who is trying to mislead others.

So

  • You can have a character who is genuinely blind to their own subtext subject. It’s completely subconscious.
  • You can have a character who is aware of it and trying to suppress or avoid it.
  • Or you can have a character who is very conscious of it and trying to trick people into believing otherwise.

I get Subtext, but I’m still having Trouble Writing it

The control you have to have over language to really take advantage of subtext is insane. You may understand everything I’ve covered in this article and are still have difficulties getting it (or not getting it) onto the page. Here are some ideas that might help with that.

Brainstorm

Writers usually get writer’s block because they haven’t brainstormed enough. Do you know what the subtext of your scene is? I know that sounds like an obvious questions, but sometimes I realize my problem is that I don’t actually have a firm idea of what the subtext-subject is, and if I don’t know it, I can’t imply it accurately. Do you know what your character is trying to keep secret? Consciously and/or subconsciously?
Another brainstorming problem: Sometimes the stuff I’ve chosen to be subtext doesn’t actually fit in the scene I’m trying to get it to fit into. Whatever is implied needs to be somewhat relevant so it can flow into the scene. In my first example of subtext, if I had tried to imply that Mr. Henderson doesn’t like tacos when he responded to Robert’s inappropriate joke, then, it would have not only been extremely difficult, but unnatural and irrelevant. It has nothing to do with the story or the moment at hand. It doesn’t fit.

Practice

Great subtext requires the author to have so much control over language, that frankly, it just needs to be practiced, developed, and honed. Keep practicing. Again, check out the Emotion Thesaurus for help.

Pay Attention

Subtext isn’t something that just happens in fiction. It happens in real life. Start consciously watching human behavior. A lot of people who feel guilty about something, get very defensive if it’s ever brought up, even in passing. I tend to have a bit of a guilt complex, so I’m quick to explain things, and I might explain them too thoroughly.
People who worry that they’ve (or will) hurt someone, often try to overcompensate for it somehow. For example, I once asked a young woman if she wanted a ride to this activity she was supposed to be at. She told me five reasons/things she was doing that meant she couldn’t go. Well, if she really just couldn’t go, she would have only told me a one or two, but she felt so bad about it, she overcompensated and told me five.
So, hopefully you are ready to write more (controlled) subtext! Good luck.


Next time I will be doing a post about instances where you want your reader’s experience to deviate from your character’s.
September C. Fawkes

About September C. Fawkes

Sometimes September C. Fawkes scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and reading. People may say she needs to get a social life. It'd be easier if her fictional one wasn't so interesting.

September C. Fawkes graduated with an English degree with honors from Dixie State University, where she was the managing editor of The Southern Quill literary journal and had the pleasure of writing her thesis on Harry Potter. She was also able to complete an internship in which she wrote promotional pieces for events held in Southern Utah, like the National Cowboy Poetry Rodeo, and she participated in a creative open mic night, met some lovely people in a writers’ group, and worked as a tutor at the Writing Center. Her college experience, although demanding, was rewarding.She liked it enough to consider getting her M.F.A., and she got accepted into a couple of programs, but decided to pass on it.

Since then, she has had the opportunity to work as an assistant for the New York Times bestselling author David Farland, while on rare occasions critiquing novels or proofreading promotional pieces on the side. Mostly she hides out in her room and writes.

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