- What’s its purpose?
- How do we spot it?
- How does it work?
- How do we write it?
Subtext or undertone is any content of a creative work which is not announced explicitly by the characters or author, but is implicit or becomes something understood by the observer of the work as the production unfolds.1. What’s its purpose?
When a character’s actions, mannerisms or words don’t quite ‘sit right’—when they don’t match that which we perceive as their intentions—it raises questions in a reader’s mind. And when a reader has questions, it generally leads to that golden action known as Page Turning. This is to be encouraged!
Psychologically speaking, readers like to think we can tell when there is incongruity between a character’s intentions and their actions. In evolutionary terms, it’s necessary to be aware of inauthentic behaviour because it might mean there's a threat from those outside our tribe ... so we’re wired to be able to spot it.
Of course, reading isn’t exactly what you'd call a survival situation, but we learn an awful lot about the world and humanity when we read a good book, and we do like to think we can tell when something fishy is going on. And—if a story is written well—we will hang in there to experience that a-ha moment when our suspicions are proven correct.
2. How do we spot it?
Subtext can be found on two levels:
Between characters within the story (screenwriters call this ‘diegetic’); or
On the meta level: how the story is being told/the narrative voice (‘extra-’ or ‘non-diegetic’).
Jane Austen was a master of subtext. Her characters are full of innuendo and blushing cheeks and restrained civility: Austen’s was an environment in which one could not air one’s opinions nor say what one most desired, so characters had to find ways to say things to each other in a coded fashion.
One of the easiest ways to spot meta level subtext at work is to think of it as a joke or secret—something revealing—between the narrator and the reader; one that the characters themselves may not be aware of.
3. How does subtext work?
Level 1: Character
Level 2: Meta
1. Character. In storytelling terms, every character has at least two forces at work from within: fear and desire. Push and pull. They want something, but something is getting in the way. They fear something, but something propels them forwards.
This is story currency. It happens at every level: sentence, scene, chapter … It’s the only way to reach a state of change. (And we all know by now that without change, there’s no story.)
Luke Skywalker desires to get off the planet Tatooine and go on an adventure … but he’s an adolescent and he’s afraid of what’s out there. How could these conflicting forces manifest as subtext? Luke speaks with bravado, but we hear the tremor in his voice.
Frodo is loathe to take the ring all the way to Mordor … but he desires to do the right thing by his friends, by Gandalf, and by All Things Good. Frodo continues bravely, but we see the weariness in his step.
You see the pattern: Character does one thing … Reader/Audience perceives something different. There’s a gap.
2. Meta level: For subtext to work on this level, the writer should be utterly clear about the distinction between what’s going on in the the story and how the story is being told. It’s also critical the writer understands exactly what the character does and does not know (or need to know) about themselves and their environment. Clarity is key!
You can most often spot this kind of subtext where the narrative voice is an unreliable narrator (e.g. Huck Finn tells the story but over time we wonder if we can trust his judgement or credibility), or it can also work with a neutral third person narrative, where the narrative voice reveals information about a character’s context that changes the value of how we view the character. (Usually by juxtaposing the seen with the spoken.)
4. So how do we write it?
Level 1: Character
Level 2: Meta
1. Character. For subtext to work best on this level, we need more than simply a theoretic fear or a desire. We need to propel them into the realm of action.
1. What does each character desire? What do they fear?
2. What do they know? What are they trying to hide?
Once we can answer these questions, we can work on how to best mete out clues to the reader that all is not as it seems ...
Body. We have our character’s whole body to work with. What are their gestures and body language? How are they holding themselves? Does their expression fit with the words they are speaking?
Words. Think about the language they use. Are they trying to hide something? Or send a coded message? Do they therefore use words they wouldn’t otherwise choose? What's their tone of voice?
Objects. With which objects do they set the table when they loathe their guests? A vase of flowers to make them sneeze? An object that would incite a fit of jealousy?
In all cases, we’re looking to disrupt. To drop in something unexpected.
2. Meta level. The same questions can be applied to the narrative voice:
What does the narrator desire? What do they fear?
What do they know? What are they trying to hide?
This is where the selection and arrangement of story elements matters. The reader needs to get the message that despite the action in the scene, something else is going on. We can do this by manipulating choice of:
Objects and environment. (Mise-en-scène.) Does their chaotic home speak volumes about their state of mind, despite their neat attire?
Qualitative language. Intentional use of value-loaded verbs (‘ugly’ vase; ‘beautiful’ sofa) can tell us a lot about how reliable a narrator is.
Ultimately, the meta level of subtext is about holding the mirror up to the narrator or even the author. (The two are not to be confused with each other!)
Exercise 1: Subtext in Dialogue
Coffee drinkers will go to great lengths to get a cup of coffee. Write a scene where a young woman is late for work. She dashes into the office kitchen and sees a hot guy reaching for the last coffee pod. She thinks he’s a 10 ... he thinks she’s incredible … but, more than that, they both want that coffee pod. What do they say to each other? How can you ‘show’ us they have an ulterior motive? What element of deceit or knowledge can you add to the mix to heighten the story stakes? (e.g. she knows he’s the new boss; he’s trying to hide that he’s been living in the office.)
Exercise 2: Subtext in Narrative Voice
Our protagonist has finished a painting and is hanging it on the wall in anticipation of presenting it to their spouse. Using a third person narrative voice—no dialogue—how can you let the reader know that, unbeknown to the protagonist, the painting is terrible? (You can also try with first person.) Remember, the same rules apply here to the narrative voice: what does the narrator know? What are they trying to hide?
Libby O'Loghlin is an award winning short story writer, novelist and ghostwriter. Her independently published YA mystery adventure, Charlotte Aimes, was longlisted for the 2015 Bath Children's novel award. Her latest project, a co-written literary thriller, will be released at the end of 2016. She is co-founder of The Woolf Quarterly, an online cultural publication based in Zürich, Switzerland.