In this post, we look at the meaning of subtext and give you tips for creating it in your writing. We also include examples.
What Is Subtext?
According to Oxford, it is ‘an underlying and often distinct theme in a piece of writing or conversation’.
To put it simply, subtext is not stated, it is implied. It is the underlying message in what we communicate. It can be used in everything, including works of fiction, an everyday conversation, or a political speech.
Why Have It?
Subtext adds texture to a story. It allows the writer to reveal information to the audience and it allows readers to read between the lines. It asks the reader to query what the story really means. (In real life, subtext allows people to share controversial thoughts, without actually mentioning the subject.)
In stories, subtext:
- Adds nuance and depth.
- Creates tension.
- Foreshadows an incident.
- Shows characterisation.
- Builds a theme.
Subtext engages your audience in your story. By giving them hints and bits of privileged information, they are driven to invest more time and emotion in the story. It can reveal the truth behind a character’s motivations, create tension through dramatic irony, show what lies beneath the surface, reinforce a theme, and foreshadow a significant event.
Different Types Of Subtext
According to Literary Terms, there are four types:
- Privilege Subtext: This is when the audience knows more than the characters.
- Revelation Subtext: This when the author reveals a truth about a character or a situation over time.
- Subtext Through Promise: Authors promise readers a great story. (Read: The Author’s Promise.) Readers want their expectations to be fulfilled. Authors can do this by creating subtext that reinforces a genre or a character’s development.
- Subtext Through Questions: If a story is well-written, the audience will begin to wonder ‘What happens next?’ This subtext is enhanced by unspoken tensions and curiosities.
5 Ways To Create It In Your Writing
- Create a situation where there is conflict. It is difficult to include subtext when everything is happy and people communicate openly. Subtext is about what is not said.
- Use a setting that allows you to show the subtext. If you want to reveal an underlying issue, the setting has to be correct. You could use an environment that looks okay on the outside, but that is slowly deteriorating to show the ravages of climate change.
- Use motifs. A motif is a recurring object, sound, phrase, action, or idea in a story. Motifs allow you to create a mood in your story. A motif is a tangible object that allows you to build your theme.
- Use motivated characters. If you want to reveal what drives a character, they must have something to pursue (a goal) and something to lose if they don’t get it. Great characters give you room to add all kinds of subtext. The more complicated they are, the better.
- Use dialogue. Let your characters say one thing and mean another. More importantly, let them choose to say nothing when they should say something. Dialogue is a great way to create subtext. You can also use ironic statements.
Examples Of Subtext
- Avatar is a story about trying to find energy resources because Earth’s have been depleted. The (revelation) subtext is that we need to look after nature and our planet so that we can survive.
- The Fly is about a scientist who starts turning into a fly-hybrid creature. His body deteriorates as he becomes less human. The (revelation) subtext is about the effects of any terminal disease.
- The End Of The F***ing World is about two 17-year-old outsiders, James and Alyssa, who go on a road trip to find her estranged father. The characters say one thing and think something completely different. The (privilege) subtext shows the characters are very different to what they show the world.
- In The Da Vinci Code, the protagonists must solve a puzzle. Dan Brown encourages his readers to try to solve it before they do by giving clues. The (privilege through questions) subtext engages the readers more thoroughly in the story.
- Dune is about fighting for control of the ‘spice’ on the planet, Arrakis. The (revelation) subtext is about how the economy can drive people to destroy their own environments, even if that means destroying themselves.
Look at the book you’re reading now. How does the author use subtext?
by Amanda Patterson
© Amanda Patterson
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