The Art and Purpose of Subtext

Image: a woman hides behind a curtain, only her hands and shoulder visible.
Photo by Ian Keefe on Unsplash

Today’s post is by author DiAnn Mills (@diannmills).


Subtext refers to characters who talk about one thing but really mean something else, and they both know it. And we’ve all done it, right? The subtext is the real conversation hidden by surface talk and is the core of the communication.

Through subtext, writers can provide information laced with sarcasm, heartbreak, or humor. And it always deepens the story with unpredictable outcomes and emotion. Characters engaged in the conversation know the hidden meaning; it’s an unspoken conversation below a verbal conversation and more valuable than the spoken word.

Why not have the characters state the obvious instead of flirting with the real topic? Isn’t it a waste of time for the writer and the reader? But communication that fulfills only one purpose is like serving a meal with no salt. The result might satisfy the tummy, but the experience is tasteless. Dialogue written without layers reduces the reader’s engagement in the story.

Characters might use subtext to show discretion:

  • They fear the wrong people understanding the real conversation could cost them.
  • They haven’t the courage to directly express what is on their hearts or minds.
  • The underlying message is only for a select few.
  • The character has an ulterior motive.

The value of subtext for the writer:

  • Provides information to the reader without telling
  • Adds stress, tension, and conflict to the scene
  • Reveals another layer of plot and/or pushes the plot forward
  • Shows insight into the character
  • Offers mystery and intrigue
  • Foreshadows a future event
  • Allows the reader to play a role in determining the dialogue’s meaning
  • Shows the reader that the writer respects their intelligence
  • Encourages the reader to pay attention

Here’s a subtext example.

Lucy tugged on her favorite red dress for her anniversary dinner. Twenty pounds ago, she looked like a siren, but her current bulges churned her stomach. Giving birth to three kids didn’t help. Grabbing her evening clutch, she joined Jake in the living room.

“Does this make me look fat?” she said.

“Of course not. You are as beautiful as the day we took our vows.”

The subtext behind Lucy’s question: Do you still love me even though I’ve gained weight?

The subtext behind Jake’s response? I don’t care about your weight, and I love you more every day.

Subtext is especially effective when characters have opposing desires and yet are forced to communicate with each other. Better yet, when they’re put into a situation where they must work together to achieve a common goal that’s crucial to each, for different reasons.

Here’s an example of subtext when a real and open conversation could cost the characters more than they’re willing to pay.

The CEO called Melissa to the podium. She stopped at Tom’s chair in the boardroom and bent to his ear. “My proposal seals the deal with the company, and I know my raise and promotion is in the works,” she said. “Too bad, Tommy. I’ll be your boss.”

He bit back his urge to respond with sarcasm. She made him want to eat nails. “Good for you.”

Melissa continued to the head of the table, but the CEO stopped her. “Melissa, I have a quick announcement to make.”

She nodded and waited. Perfectly poised.

The CEO took the podium. “Melissa has developed an innovative program to streamline our inner office communications. She is ready to give the presentation, but I want to announce the other person who will be helping her drive this forward.” He paused. “Tom, come on up here. I’m thrilled you’ll be working right alongside Melissa. Your attention to detail is just what we need. This project will be your 9 to 5 job.”

Tom approached the CEO and shook his hand. “Thank you, sir. You won’t be disappointed.”

Melissa gave Tom an icy smile. “Congratulations. The idea of working alongside you for the next three months is a bonus. I look forward to learning from you.”

Tom’s head pounded at the thought of what lay ahead. “Thank you for all you’ve done for the project. I look forward to combining our goals to make the new program successful.”

The CEO raised his hand. “A round of applause for this new team. I expect we will see great achievements from Tom and Melissa.” He gestured at the two. “If you finish the project before the three-month period, I’ll have a handsome bonus for each of you.”

The above scenario paints a road of emotional turmoil for Tom and Melissa. They must work together for the good of the project and the company. Plus, a bonus for completing the job early sounds amazing. Yet how will they deal with their differences in an environment that expects and demands they remain civil to each other?

Francine Prose once said, “When we humans speak, we are not merely communicating information but attempting to make an impression and achieve a goal. And sometimes we are hoping to prevent the listener from noticing what we are NOT saying, which is often not merely distracting but, we fear, as audible as what we ARE saying. As a result, dialogue usually contains as much or even more subtext than it does text. More is going on under the surface than on it. One mark of badly written dialogue is that it is only doing one thing, at most, at once.”

More than a dialogue technique, subtext is amazing fun for the writer. See if you can level up your behind the scenes game.

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