Few writers take the time to understand subtext and the part it plays in a story, and yet ironically most use subtext without really thinking about it. It is one of those things that may sometimes naturally manifest itself during writing, while other writers take the time to pour over what they want to subliminally say with their subtext.
So what exactly is subtext?
We can best describe subtext as a subtle undercurrent running through your story, just below the surface. It’s what remains hidden from obvious notice, but it simmers just enough to catch the attention of the reader. It’s an understated thread that becomes apparent to the reader as the story unfolds.
Basically, it sums up what lies beneath the story, those hidden meanings so subtle that it may not always be apparent on the first reading. It’s the undertone to your story; however that is not to say every story should have subtext, because that is not the case. Not all stories do.
Subtext is simply a way of enriching your story or creating extra depth to it. It could be something implied or hidden, something to do with the theme of the story, it could be based the characters or their dialogue, or maybe their thoughts and actions, or it could be something to do with the plot – a political or sexual subtext, a subversive one, and so on. Perhaps you want to make a social comment about injustice, inequality or conflict etc.
It’s the implied nature of it that attracts the reader, those hidden elements which give us deeper meanings within a story.
For example, a simple subtext to a love story would be the boy’s attraction to the girl, but it’s hidden by his negative behaviour towards her, which is harsh and unfair. The reader will instinctively see through his horrible behaviour and know it’s really down to the fact that he fancies her but is too shy to approach her that way, so he hides behind a bad boy facade.
What if you have a character that, on the face of it, seems so nice and friendly to all your other characters, but hides something altogether darker beneath his surface? What if you alluded to the kind of person he really is, but did so without giving too much away?
What if your main character is an alcoholic in denial, and those around him don’t realise? And as the writer, you never reveal it, but by referencing alcohol within the narrative at certain points, you are laying the foundations of subtext, and the reader will be astute enough to notice the clues and make their own conclusions about the character.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula is, on the surface, about a vampire, but the subtext bubbles with sexual desire and imagery. George Orwell’s Animal Farm was basically about a bunch of animals running their own farm, free from humans, but the narrative brims with political and social subtext – the animals were a metaphor to show how badly humans actually behaved towards one another, keenly observed by Orwell.
If you’ve ever read DH Lawrence, you’ll know there is a strong homosexual subtext that flows throughout his stories, even though he is commentating on the general social order – middle and upper classes - of that time.
But how do you achieve subtext?
Subtext is about hinting at something at certain points, or by weaving deep-set imagery and symbolism within the narrative, all without actually revealing anything. You are showing the reader, but not telling them.
Readers will notice this kind of thing. You might use metaphors to create clues for the reader in order to get them to read between the lines.
Subtext compliments and enriches your story, but doesn’t steal the limelight. It brings dimension and complexity and hidden meaning, without being overt.
Subtext is another way a writer can add extra layers of understanding to their stories. A story is about many things, some of them obvious, some of them less so. Subtext is about finding those deeper levels and hidden meanings and layering your story with them, whether it’s a 5000 word short story or a blockbusting 100,000 novel.
Whichever one, the reader will enjoy your story all the more.
Next week: Why writing isn’t just about imagery.