Subtext is a clever literary device that isn’t often thought about by writers, but it’s quite effective when used properly. The wonderful thing about subtext is that it’s something that isn’t seen, but the reader knows it’s there and, hopefully, they understand it.
Knowing what subtext is and what it does is different to getting to grips with it, but subtext isn’t difficult to achieve; often it happens subconsciously by the writer. But subtext comes down to having a complete awareness of the characters and the story; it’s the very undercurrent beneath the words. It’s hidden from view, to become visible at the right moment. It has the power to create mood and atmosphere, emotion and conflict in very subtle and unobtrusive ways.
Subtext is about how it’s done- the art of revelation. But why use it? Why go to all that trouble of suggestion when the writer could simply just say it in the narrative?
The answer lies in how fiction is constructed. Remember, every novel is written for the reader, not the writer. So it’s not just about writing a good story with affable characters that overcome a few dilemmas and live happily ever after. It’s much more than that. The reading experience is all inclusive – your reader wants a good story, likable characters, nail biting situations, action/thrills/romance, emotion and atmosphere and everything in between. And subtext is just one of those things that make reading a novel so enjoyable and encompassing.
But how do you achieve it?
Effectiveness in anything comes with experience, so the more you write, the more you develop your writing skills and the more intuitive you’ll become with things like metaphor and subtext.
Read any book and there will be always be layers beneath the narrative, such as a certain look between characters, a snippet of description, certain behaviour or something a character says – all elements that make up subtext. Here’s an example, from one of my short stories called Passing Judgement, where the main character is wrongly accused of terrible crime:
The cold cloud that hovered above the hill seemed close and oppressive and constricted, like a thick rope around the larynx, pressing tight against the skin. A lasting winter lilt gilded the brow of the hill and formed thin, introspective shadows which slithered along the frosted mounds and worked their way up to the elongated silhouette that shaded the trunk of the barren oak tree. The shadow remained still, except when mocked now and then by a curious cool breeze.
Narrative subtext relies on hints within the description that reader can detect. These are the visual clues the reader will notice, and in the opening sentence, the words ‘close and oppressive and constricted, like a thick rope around the larynx’ is a subtle visual clue to what is really happening. Without stating the obvious, the description allows the reader to understand the moment, yet read between the lines and the unseen becomes seen. The theme of the story is there to see. It’s actually describing someone hanging from a tree.
Subtext in dialogue is the most common way of allowing the reader to understand the characters. A simple example is from To Kill a Mockingbird. At the end of the story, Boo, who is portrayed as someone to be feared, finally comes out of hiding and stands on Scout's porch.
That’s all Scout says to him. But underneath this delivery we can sense the warmness of her greeting; she is not scared of him - unlike the adults - and does not see Boo as someone to fear. She is comfortable in his presence. It’s simple, yet it works, because we know Scout’s true sentiment.
Here’s another simple example, where the main character is talking to a prisoner in a train:
‘Why do you wear a star on your clothes?’ Dmitry asked.
‘It’s the star of St David. The sign of a Jew.’
Dmitry’s face furrowed. ‘Perhaps when you get to safety they will give you food, new clothes and things. This train stops at Treblinka.’
‘That’s where the train is heading,’ Dmitry said. ‘Lots of trains, every day, full with people. You’ll be safe there.’
Dialogue subtext is a way of hinting at something without directly saying it, so in this example, the real emotion and meaning lies beneath the surface of the main character’s optimism. It’s obvious to the reader, without saying it directly, what will happen to the man with star on his clothes.
Characterisation subtext is about behaviour. In real life, people display different behaviours and reactions, and fiction is no different. Subtext is a great way for writers to show these behaviours in such a way that the reader sees more within the story than is actually being shown, for example this scene between these two characters – one a crack addict and the other, her dealer:
Tiffany stared at the silver packet, mesmerised by the way it glimmered beneath the light, the way it drew her in beyond the gleam, beyond the superficial nature of it. It plunged her headlong into a grubby darkness of want and need.
Smoke coiled around his weathered face as he watched her. His eyes narrowed.
She glanced at him, her voice throaty, absent. ‘You had everything yesterday. I’m sore...’
Movement in the corner caught his eye; a smaller shadow, a vulnerable one, staring at him from the cot. He went over to the child, fingered her hair. ‘I don’t care. I want my money, so you better get out there and earn it or else.’
Here, the unseen is a way to highlight emotion and sentiment and these reactions speak to the reader, without actually stating the obvious. Beneath the narrative, something dark and unpleasant lurks. By standing next to the child and playing with her hair, his real intentions are clear, while Tiffany’s addictive needs are apparent by the way the cocaine packet mesmerises her.
There are many ways to show subtext. It can be within narrative, dialogue or characterisation. Think of it this way: everyone loves a treasure hunt. To uncover the clues and find something hidden is always exciting. And that’s why writers use subtext. Because readers secretly love a treasure hunt.
Next week: Active versus passive fiction.