What Lies Beneath: Adding Subtext To Your Story

In real life, people are not necessarily open and honest about their feelings, their intentions, or their actions. Sometimes they try to hide them, and sometimes, they honestly don’t know themselves.

In writing, it adds to a character, helping round them out from 2-dimensions into 3 if you can figure out how to add the sub-text.

Sub-text is how you manage a big reveal or plot twist at the end of your book and have readers go “Oh! Of course!” rather than feeling cheated or misled.

But how do you add subtext to your novel?

At #Balticon, I attended a panel on Adding Subtext, featuring Sarah Avery, Bernie Mojzes, Gail Z. Martin, and Mike Van Helder.

What exactly IS subtext?

It’s the non-verbal communication piece. Often you find that developing writers spell out more than established ones, so it can be a sign of skill. They’re things that the reader can pick up on that the Point of View character might miss. It’s not good to rely on it for plot, but it’s amazing at filling in the world.

Finding subtext in books and media

Subtext lends itself more to some genres than other.

  • Science fiction
  • Fantasy

Others it doesn’t work as well

  • Ayn Rand
  • Traditional pulp mysteries
  • High action
  • Thrillers

But, you can find amazing amounts of subtext in things you’d least expect. Children’s movies, and even Wiley Coyote and Bugs Bunny had huge amounts of in-jokes and cultural references in the background. It’s a great way to make a media accessible to children AND adults.

Subtext in older novels can really show the biases and cultural understandings of the time.

Subtext isn’t always intentional!

  • When you look back at all the random things you thought were simply part of the world, about 4/5ths the way through the book, and you realize [as a writer] you’ve actually been building to [Major Plot Reveal].
  • After writing a scene with dialogue, rereading it can be very enlightening, to learn about your characters and what they reveal through their reactions.

Finding Subtext In The Real World

The more repressed a society is, the more likely their subtext says more than their words. When you’re being watched and have to be on your best behavior to not show the wrong emotion, it has to come out some way.

Next family gathering, sit there and watch and see how much doesn’t need to get said. That’s conveyed with half a word and a look.

Both ambassadors and con-men are extremely skilled at subtext. That’s how they convince people to work with them.

Abuse victims are skilled at picking up on it–and start to pick up on it when it isn’t there.

In Japan, subtext Is the text. To  the unacquainted, they miss what’s really being ‘said’. Men have a grunting language. It’s not even the sound or tone. It’s all in the timing and how they grunt. When offered something , unless you say no the right way, they think you’re simply  being polite.

If you think about it, paranoia could be classified as a subtext disorder — seeing subtext where there isn’t any!

Ways to incorporate subtext!

  • Use vowel repetition/word sound/or alliteration for a scene feel
  • Slip in iambic pentameter
  • Have different subtext between a character and the narrator
  • Try to imagine the scene you’re writing as a film shot
  • Change Anglo-Saxon words to Romance language versions (in English, the Romance version comes from the Norman invasion and was more nobility, versus commoner.)
  • Have characters of power/with more agency be unaware of subtext – because they don’t have to worry about controlling their reactions as much!
  • Have Character A respond to Char B as if they were Char C! It reveals how they’re different with different people and some about who Char C is.

Writers and Media to look at for subtext

  • Shakespeare. He uses “subtext like a scalpel.”
  • “Lost In Translation”
  • Hemingway
  • “Supernatural” – the music adds a lot on context.
  • “What Every Body Is Saying”
  • “The Full Fact Book Of Cold Reads”
  • “Winning Through Intimidation”
  • “Death of the Author” – Roland Bart
  • Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Liaden books.

What examples of subtext do you have?
Do you have any stories about picking up on subtext… after the fact?

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2 thoughts on “What Lies Beneath: Adding Subtext To Your Story

  1. “Have characters of power/with more agency be unaware of subtext – because they don’t have to worry about controlling their reactions as much!”

    That is actually incredibly helpful advice for a story I am, in theory, working on. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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