I’ve written about this subject previously, but I’ve been asked to revisit this much underappreciated aspect of fiction writing, so therefore it deserves another look.
There are so many elements that go into fiction writing that writers really should take the time to understand them, because writing is not an easy, instant process. In fact, it’s quite difficult to conceive, develop, plan, research and write a novel. And that’s because there are many technical things a writer should be aware of - not just creative ones - if they want to succeed.
So how many writers actually consider subtext?
Surprisingly, not many. Writers have a tendency to race through their novels without considering the more mechanical aspects such as symbolism, simile, metaphor and so on. And they do so because often, they are not aware that the story needs them. This is the difference between a serious writer and one that suddenly wakes one morning and decides they want to be a ‘writer’.
Serious writers will tackle every minuscule detail of their story. Wannabe writers won’t. Serious writers will underscore their narrative with subtext. Wannabe writers won’t.
So what is subtext?
Every story has subtext, but not every writer will be aware of this.
Subtext is the implied meaning or theme within the narrative. It can also refer to the thoughts, actions and motives of characters that are not always so overt. The reader, however, should completely understand the subtext.
Think of the ocean. On the surface lies the story, but something else lurks beneath the surface. There are always undercurrents – the subtext – the kind of things that always move around beneath the surface, just out of view.
In other words, it is the suggestive and implied messages hidden just beneath the surface of the narrative that makes subtext so effective. This is where readers to ‘read between the lines’. It is a clever device which, if done properly, offers more for the reader than they first realised.
Why is it needed?
While subtext is not a mandatory requirement for storytelling, it’s one of those elements that enrich the narrative by giving it extra dimension – not just for the benefit of the story, but also for the benefit of the reader, so writers should incorporate it in order to enhance and deepen their story.
Writers have always buried hidden meanings, messages and nuances within narrative; it’s a game of hide and seek; one that readers unconsciously like to play.
Crime novels and psychological thrillers employ subtext to great effect because they use it as a way of suggestion or manipulation, they often make the reader believe something or they hint at a hidden meanings or themes underpinning the story, however, subtext is found in all genres of stories.
How does subtext work?
It’s an obvious question – how will the reader understand it without it being over complicated or even missed?
Firstly, writers wrongly assume subtext is something far too complicated to tackle; that they have to make subtext fit the narrative, but in reality, it isn’t actually complicated.
Subtext usually occurs naturally because of the story and themes that the writer generates as the story unfolds. Writers sometimes create subtext without even trying. It simply happens logically. There will be other times when the subtext presents itself before the story has begun – the writer will instinctively spot opportunities for subtext. It’s up to the writer to spot the potential and exploit it at any given opportunity.
There are a number of ways you can do this - you can use narrative, metaphor, symbolism and dialogue to generate subtext.
Implying subtext through narrative means the writer can hint at something in such a way that is not overt, but almost subliminal. For example, in To Kill a Mockingbird, the subtext is about the prejudices that are apparent in all of us and this is carried throughout the novel in descriptive asides, that something as simple as the colour of one’s skin can cause others to become hostile.
Implying subtext through use metaphor or symbolism means writers can use visual stimulus or imagery to provide subtext. In a story about destruction, this can take the form of ominous clouds in the distance, or the repetition of seeing a certain animal – a crow is often used in movies and literature as something foreboding – to suggest a series of bad events. A ghost or horror story might have a character that senses déjà vu in the lead up to critical events.
Implying subtext through dialogue means that beneath the spoken words there may be hidden meanings and emotions. There may be character thoughts and motives which could also be explored through subtext. Characters are ambiguous by nature, just like real people. There is more than meets the eye with everyone, after all.
An example of this might be a character who gives the impression they are not quite what they seem. Without giving too much away, you could have the character say to another, ‘You know you can trust me, don’t you?’ The reader will instinctively know that’s not true. The subtext is that this character cannot be trusted and that something bad might happen further into the story.
Subtext is also a way for writers to inject political or social commentary into the narrative, particularly if it is a sensitive or controversial topic, things that we don’t talk about openly, the hints about darker side of society and humanity.
Remember, subtext isn’t the actual theme – it’s an adjunct, a simple but effective addition to underpin both theme and plot, to enrich and colour the story to full potential. The best way to understand it is to read books – you’ll learn to spot it.
Next week: Getting the setting right
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