HOW TO CREATE SUBTEXT
Text is simply the collection of words we write, while subtext is the real message beneath those words. Oliver Goldsmith said in 1759: “The true use of speech is not so much to express our wants as to conceal them.”
In real life, we don't always say what we mean and our characters shouldn't either if they're realistic. We try to hide our true feelings for a variety of reasons. Perhaps we have a secret we're desperate to conceal; perhaps we're embarrassed or ashamed. We may have personal information, and we fear an untrustworthy acquaintance could use it against us. People often use sarcasm, a form of subtext, to belittle someone. Maybe we outright lie to protect ourselves or someone we love.
Let's take a situation and make it "on-the-nose," meaning it is surface conversation. No subtlety. No evasiveness. No attempts to hide the truth even if it might cause trouble. Then we'll look at a scene in which a character reveals the same information reluctantly and subtextually.
Here's the setup: Will, who recently opened a private investigation business, is having dinner with his girlfriend, Charlotte. He needs to tell her he accidentally spent the night on a boat with a stripper named Priscilla. He didn't have sex with her but he worries Charlotte won't believe him.
In the restaurant dining room, Will lowers his voice. "Charlotte, I need to confess something but I swear it's not as bad as it sounds."
Charlotte leans forward, her eyes searching his. "What have you done?"
"I have a new client named Priscilla. She works as a stripper at Annie's Tavern. Her father has been kidnapped."
"Kidnapped? How awful."
"I've been trying to locate him. Priscilla told me he owns a boat on Elochoman Slough so I took her out there to see if we could find some clues as to his whereabouts."
"You took her on your boat?"
Will nodded, then sipped his wine.
"You said you wouldn't go back there because you got stuck in that slough once," Charlotte said.
"I know and I meant to get out as quickly as I could, but we found a body on her father's boat."
"You found her father?"
"No, we found the body of a young woman."
"Well, I hope you immediately contacted the police."
"We couldn't. I wanted to, but the tide went out and we were stranded until morning. That area is like a maze. The police couldn't have found us in the dark anyway."
"You spent the night with a stripper? That really bothers me, Will. "
"Nothing happened, Charlotte. I promise you. I didn't sleep with her. Well, I mean I slept next to her on the berth but I swear I didn't touch her. You're the only woman I love. I would never ever cheat on you."
She put her hand on his. "I know that, Will. Thanks for explaining the situation. I appreciate your telling the truth."
Although Will speaks truthfully, the previous passage is unpublishable for several reasons: It has no subtext, no hidden feelings, no conflict, just the straight facts. Charlotte accepts everything he says. As a character, Will is a dud and Charlotte isn't much better. They don't sound or behave like real people. The scene has no tension because Charlotte accepts everything he says at face value, and there's no dramatic change in their relationship.
How can we give this scene both subtext and conflict?
Look for the emotion in your scenes. Emotion rises out of conflict and conflict rises out of emotion.
In his manuscript, Behind the Eight Ball, Robert Olds uses the same events, but because he’s a better writer, he includes conflict and subtext. It’s a long passage, but here are snippets showing how he created them. He makes Will a sweet guy but a bit of a womanizer. Charlotte knows he has lied to her in the past, so she suspects he's lying to her again. She's angry and Will realizes his cover story is disintegrating. Now we have conflict. We've located the source of emotion in the scene, and that's where the subtext comes from.
Will enters the restaurant, his confidence high, a hundred dollar bill in his wallet. He tells the reader where his girlfriend likes to sit, and then he settles himself in a different area (his own favorite spot, his own territory). Charlotte arrives. I've underlined subtext and explained what's going on beneath the surface.
“Sorry to be late,” she said. “I’ve been talking to Doris.”
“Doris?” I asked as my breathing came to a halt. (HE REALIZES HE'S BEEN CAUGHT IN A LIE.)
“Yes, Doris, your client. The one you said you were with this morning. I called her.”
“I’m really sorry I lied about Doris. But I think you’ll understand after you hear what’s going on.”
He tells her about his new client, a young woman whose father has been kidnapped, and the dead woman they found on the boat.
Charlotte says, “You did call the sheriff’s office, didn’t you?”
“Of course,” I said, my eyes shifting away. (A SIGN HE'S LYING.) “And they’ll be investigating.” I threw the rest of my wine down (HE'S GETTING NERVOUS.) and held up the glass for the waitress to see, even though I had no idea where she was. I felt Charlotte’s eyes on me and decided to return the stare.
She put her hand on mine. “They’ll get whatever help they need from the state police, you know. They’ll find this woman’s father better than a small town private investigator ever could.”
“Thanks for the confidence.” (SARCASM)
“Who is she, anyway?”
She pulled her hand back and tapped her fingernails on the table. (SHOWS ANNOYANCE.) I took another large gulp of wine, then another one and looked for the waitress. (HE'S USING ALCOHOL TO CALM DOWN.) I was ready to switch to straight scotch. (THE CONVERSATION ISN'T GOING WELL)
Charlotte took a gentle sip and leaned forward. "Who is she?"
“Who is she?” I said.
“Yes, Will. Who is she? Not that difficult a question, really. OK, let me make it easy for you. (SARCASM) We’ll play twenty questions. First, where does she work?”
“Where does she work?”
“Somebody give you a drug that turns you into a parrot?” (SARCASM)
“She works at Annie’s Tavern.”
“OK, good, we’re getting somewhere now. (SARCASM) The woman who hired you to find her father works at a dive bar. (DERISION) That’s the place where you got beat up, isn’t it?”
“I didn’t get beat up. I beat the shit out of him and he got in a couple lucky blows.” (HE'S EMBARRASSED BECAUSE HE DIDN'T WIN THE FIGHT.)
“What does she do? Wait, you’ll just parrot that back to me. Is she a bartender?
“Could be.” (HE'S EVASIVE BECAUSE HE DOESN’T WANT TO TELL HER DIRECTLY THE WOMAN IS A STRIPPER.)
“Then she’s a stripper who does some bartending. That’s what you’re trying to tell me.
(WILL ADMITS PRISCILLA IS A STRIPPER AND CONFESSES HE SPENT THE NIGHT WITH HER.)
"Nothing happened. Absolutely nothing. Staying there overnight was the last thing I wanted, but I had no choice.” (HE'S PROTESTING TOO MUCH.)
After more discussion, Charlotte says, “Let the sheriff take care of it. You can't tell me a private eye in a small town like Astoria can do a better job.”
"I might be more capable than you realize. Ever think of that?” (ANNOYANCE BECAUSE SHE’S BELITTLING HIM.)
"I don’t care how capable you are, Will." She wiped her eyes with the napkin. (SIGN OF DISTRESS BECAUSE SHE REALLY CARES ABOUT HIM) "I’d just rather not have you chase after murderers. Are we clear on that?"
“Perfectly clear." I pushed my chair back and started to stand. Going in search of the waitress would get me a drink a lot quicker, and give Charlotte and me much needed breathing space. Charlotte started grinding her teeth with a clenched jaw, something she does when she’s angry, and folded her arms across her chest, casting a harsh gaze into my eyes as I stood up. (SHOWS HER ANGER.)
“I have to go to the bathroom. Do you want another glass of wine if I see the waitress?”
“No, make it a margarita. Extra salt. Heavy on the tequila.” (SHE’S UPSET. SHE NEEDS A STRONGER DRINK TO CALM HERSELF.)
“Added shot, you mean?”
“Added shot, added bottle, whatever.” (SHOWS STRESS.)
When Will returns, he finds Charlotte in tears. (NOW SHE’S UPSET ABOUT THE STRIPPER.)
“Charlotte, I’m telling you, nothing happened and never would. Not a single, solitary thought even crossed my mind.” (HE’S PROTESTING TOO MUCH.)
"Really? You didn’t tell me you were in a coma.” (SARCASM)
Notice the difference in the on-the-nose scene and the one filled with anger, guilt and hurt feelings. Also notice Mr. Olds' scene begins on a positive note. Will walks into the restaurant feeling confident and in control. By the end of the scene, both he and Charlotte are miserable. So the scene goes from a plus to a minus, a good technique for showing change.
You can improve your scenes in the same way Mr. Olds did.
1. Find the emotion in your scene. If you have no emotion, you probably have no conflict and you'll need to rewrite it.
2. Who is trying to hide something? Who has hurt feelings but pretends to be okay? Secrets and a strong emotional reaction can be repressed temporarily but will eventually leak out or explode.
3. Think of ways to show that emotion through behavior or dialogue. Maybe the person with the secret tries to minimize his involvement but the truth gradually seeps out and contaminates the relationship, as with Will and Charlotte. Maybe the character wants to distance himself from the conflict, as Will does when he leaves the table to go to the bathroom.
Perhaps the characters show their distress by drinking more alcohol. There are dozens of ways you can show how the characters feel. What if Will was sweating during the conversation? What would that show? What if Charlotte released her anger subtextually by setting down her wine glass so hard she snapped the stem? What if Charlotte said, "I think we need to date other people." What is she really saying?
4. Remember subtext is about emotion. Rather than reveal his true feelings, he tries to minimize it, avoid the subject altogether, lie about it, become angry or use some other tactic to avoid dealing with the truth and his true feelings. If your character is angry or sad or afraid or has one of many other feelings, how can you show he’s experiencing that emotion without telling us directly?
Once you've located the emotion, you're halfway there. Practice showing some of your characters’ feelings through subtext. It will require you and the reader to think more deeply about what the scene is really saying and it will add richness to your story.