What is Subtext? And 3 Ways To Use It In Your Story

character creation drafting
What is subtext? And three ways to use it in your story

Have you ever walked into a room and picked up the feeling that something was off? Maybe two people are giving each other the silent treatment while one flips the pages of a magazine. Maybe you’ve walked into a meeting just as another employee storms out, leaving everyone else staring at the table in silence as you try to figure out what is going on.

In writing, Ernest Hemingway referred to this as “The Iceberg Theory.” In this theory, information being shared with the reader is only a small part of the story, with more information hidden beneath the surface of what the writer explicitly reveals. These implicit details and hidden meanings that the reader must uncover on their own are subtext, and it is what makes for a compelling story.

Subtext forces the reader to read between the lines and pick up clues the writer leaves indirectly. It hints at someone's motives or feelings without revealing everything the reader needs to know. Subtext conveys important information without explicitly stating it. When written well, subtext builds tension and adds an extra layer of depth to your story. Read on for three ways to weave subtext in your own work!

3 Ways to Use Subtext to Your Story

Get inside the character’s head

One way to infuse a story with subtext is to reveal your protagonist's interior thoughts and emotions about what is happening around them, and in doing so, plant the underlying message in the reader’s head.

In Karen M. McManus’s One of Us is Lying, Simon, a boy who created a school gossip app where he shares dirt on everyone in the school, dies suddenly from an allergic reaction to peanut oil during after-school detention. The other students in the room at the time of Simon’s death are later called to the principal’s office to be questioned by the police. One of the POV characters, Cooper, notices the reactions of the other students while being questioned by the police:

“Did you ever worry about ending up on Simon’s app? Feel like you had something hanging over your heads, or anything?”

“Not me,” I say, but my voice isn’t as confident as I would have liked. I glance away from Officer Budapest and catch Addy and Bronwyn looking like polar opposites: Addy’s gone pale as a ghost, and Bronwyn’s flushed brick red. Nate watches them for a few seconds, tilts his chair back, and looks at Officer Budapest.

“Everybody’s got secrets,” he says. “Right?”

By getting inside Cooper’s head in this scene, we’re not only able to see how Addy and Bronwyn react to the officer’s questions, but also how Cooper reveals that he can’t answer those questions with confidence either. This subtle way of revealing Cooper’s unspoken thoughts and reactions leaves the reader wondering if any of these three might be guilty of plotting Simon’s demise. The reader is now hooked and eager to turn the pages to see which, if any, of the students were responsible for Simon’s death.

Get into your characters' heads and reveal their interior dialogue and reactions as one tip of the iceberg that hooks your reader through subtext.

Include subtext in dialogue

People don’t always say what they mean. Dialogue can be used as a form of subtext to communicate information implicitly, leaving the reader to figure out the true meaning of a character’s words.

In Malinda Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club, Lily Hu is coming to terms with the fact that she is attracted to girls. Lily has feelings for her new friend, Kath, and believes Kath is gay, but she doesn’t know how to ask Kath directly. In this scene, Lo uses dialogue that allows Lily to indirectly ask Kath if she feels the same way as Lily describes to Kath a book she had seen on the shelves of the drugstore:

“It was about two women.” Lily’s mouth felt so dry she might choke on the words. “That book, Strange Season. It was about two women, and they fell in love with each other.” And then she asked the question that had taken root in her, that was even now unfurling its leaves and demanding to be shown the sun: “Have you ever heard of such a thing?”

Kath’s eyes widened briefly, and then she looked down at the floor and over at the science fiction rack and back at Lily, who felt her heart thudding like a drum, her blood rushing through her veins and turning her skin pink as she waited for Kath’s response. An eternity seemed to pass; the heat of the fluorescent light on her head was like an artificial sun; the cash register at the front of the store rang like an alarm bell.

Finally Kath said one soft word: “Yes.”

Without directly asking her if she felt the same way, Lily got the answer to the question she was afraid to ask out loud. This is one example of how to add subtext to a scene with dialogue. Other types of subtext revealed through a character's words and actions could include facial expressions that contradict what they are saying in the conversation, cueing the reader into what that character is really saying.

Show subtext through behavior

A person's behavior can be used to implicitly show their feelings. Rex Ogle recalls navigating middle school while his family fought poverty in his memoir, Free Lunch, which reads like fiction. Rex learned to read his mom’s mood by her behavior. In this scene, Rex’s mother’s anger at her life circumstances is revealed through her actions as they prepare to shop for groceries using food stamps and what little money they had:

She gets out of the car and slams the door. I don’t take off my seat belt. Mom storms around the car and tries to open the door. It takes a second ‘cause it has a big dent in the side that catches every time. Metal wrenches against metal when she jerks it open. “Get out of the car!”

In this scene, Ogle purposefully uses vivid verbs to describe Rex’s mother's actions. She doesn't just close the door; she slams it.  She doesn’t just open the door; she jerks it open. His mom doesn’t just walk around the car; she storms around it. This behavior lets Rex know his mother is angry. What is the underlying meaning of these lines? From this example of subtext, the reader can infer that this shopping trip, just like Rex’s life, isn’t going to go well.

Body language is another way to use subtext to reveal a character’s true feelings. A boy in love with a classmate might lean closer over her desk while helping her with homework or touch her shoulder. If the girl looks up or holds his gaze and smiles, the reader might assume she shares his feelings. If she pulls back and glares, if the young man pulls back and pushes his hands in his pockets, the reader might gather that the girl doesn’t return his feelings and is even offended. Prolonged eye contact might reveal hidden feelings, while averting one’s eyes and refusing to make eye contact might reveal that they are hiding something or not being truthful.

Use body language on the page as one way to convey the nuanced meaning or message that lies beneath the surface of a scene.

Ready to infuse your story with compelling subtext?

With these tips, you’re ready to start adding more depth and meaning to your writing with compelling subtext! Get into your characters' heads and reveal their interior thoughts and reactions. Use body language, dialogue, and character behavior to help the reader understand what is being left unsaid. Choose a symbol that will cause your reader to say, “Aha!” in recognition of what is to come. Using any of these techniques will add unspoken meaning to your story and make for a compelling read.

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