I realized I couldn’t write about some of my future topics, such as dialogue, behavior patterns, repressed characters and several other subjects without first talking about subtext.
Of all the advanced writing techniques, subtext is probably the most elusive but also the most powerful. Many of my students seem to master it intuitively. Others struggle for years to understand it. It’s a writing technique that separates the pros from the amateurs.
Subtext conveys what a character is thinking but not saying. According to research, most of our communication is nonverbal. When it is verbal, people often don’t say what they really mean. They convey their feelings through subtext. Think of it as the silent language that lies beneath the words.
It’s a common concept in screen and play writing, but you don’t often see it mentioned in context with novels. I published two novels before I realized I was using it, and I’m sure it was a key ingredient in selling my first book.
Let’s define some terms. Text is the surface of an artistic work. Nothing is concealed; the words have no meaning below the surface. When a character says, “I’m angry with you,” that’s exactly what she means. In screenwriting, it’s called writing “on the nose.” The problem with the what-you-see-is-what-you-get approach is that it’s predictable and boring and doesn’t challenge the reader’s mind.
Oliver Goldsmith said in 1759: “The true use of speech is not so much to express our wants as to conceal them.” Subtext is a message beneath the literal words. It’s a form of “showing” that conveys a character’s hidden thoughts and feelings, a form that adds depth, richness and subtlety to your writing. It’s essential to stage plays and literary fiction because they rely on deep, meaningful themes and ideas rather than action to create tension.
Subtext has its roots in emotion and conflict. Two characters in conflict have opposing desires, so that pitting them against each other, no matter how good their intentions, leads to discord. Conflict, whether it’s external or internal, generates emotion. That emotion can be shown obliquely through behavior, dialogue or even silence.
When your mother says, “You aren’t going to wear that outfit, are you?” she’s not asking a question as much as stating her own opinion about your clothes and your fashion sense in choosing them. By the way, mothers can turn subtext into an art form.
Sometimes, a character’s behavior will contradict her words. Think of your character in the jungle with a man she wants to impress. She’s terrified of the animal sounds and she expects to be attacked by a tiger at any moment, but when he asks if she’s afraid, she denies it. The man may or may not believe her, but the reader knows how she really feels.
Emotion fuels subtext. Once you locate the character’s emotion, ask yourself how you can show it, rather than tell it.
Consider the plight of a man who is apprehensive about informing his wife he wants a separation. As the author, you could tell the reader that directly, but that would be on the nose with little power behind it. Instead, you could show his anxiety subtextually by having him perspire heavily when he faces her or refuse to meet her gaze or speak to her in a harsh tone or have him say he still loves her (which the reader knows is a lie) and he hates hurting her (which might be true, but he’s going to do it anyway).
His wife, on the other hand, may say, “I’m furious with you,” but that’s telling, not showing her anger. Take a moment and come up with a few ways she might show it.
Perhaps she’ll curse him or say she’ll never let him see his children again or sob so hard that she can’t speak or stab him in the jugular with her metal knitting needle. The latter would certainly be a way of showing her feelings.
Emotion is most powerful when it’s suppressed, simmering under the surface, building tension until it can’t be contained any longer and must emerge. The harder a person tries to suppress her feelings, the more likely they are to erupt, often at inopportune times. And at those times, the dialogue might become directly on the nose, the character having given up on subtle methods of communication.
In Anne Tyler’s beautifully crafted novel, The Accidental Tourist, subtext is abundant. The main character Macon Leary works as hard as anyone possibly could to suppress his grief over the murder of his young son Ethan. His compulsive clamp on his emotions drives away his wife and friends, and he becomes even more isolated and lonely.
But Anne Tyler never tells us that directly. She shows us, as illustrated in his actions:
“After his wife left him, Macon had thought the house would seem larger. Instead, he felt more crowded. The windows shrank. The ceilings lowered. There was something insistent about the furniture as if it were pressing in on him.”
Later, the author writes:
“Some places, the walls gave off a kind of echo. Still, Macon noticed he had a tendency to hold his arms close to his body, to walk past furniture sideways as if he imagined the house could barely accommodate him. He felt too tall. His long, clumsy feet seemed unusually distant. He ducked his head in doorways.”
As is often the case, the character doesn’t even realize he’s desperately suppressing his grief. If Macon faces it, he subconsciously believes the pain will be unbearable. He dines alone one evening in a fine restaurant at the top of a tall building. Without warning, he experiences a paralyzing panic attack, a symbolic explosion of all of his carefully contained grief.
Subtext often needs a setup. In The Accidental Tourist, the reader needs to know early in the novel that Macon’s young son has been murdered so we’ll understand why he behaves the way he does and why his panic attack signals the end of his ability to bury his anguish. Instead of making the pain more unbearable, expressing his deep sorrow and dealing with it frees him to love again.
The real meaning of a well-crafted novel lies in the protagonist’s self-discovery—that moment when his emotions break through the surface and he must face the truth and make life changes based on his new self-knowledge. Look for the conflicts and emotions in your manuscript. Try expressing them subtextually, and you’ll have a book that’s more likely to become a work of art.