I studied theatre. All we have in theatre is words on a page, it is up to the actors and directors to figure out what the hell the characters are actually saying.
Shakespeare didn’t deal a lot in subtext. The characters say exactly what they mean unless it’s made explicitly clear to the audience that the character is lying or something. More modern works have a ton of subtext. It’s a great tool for writers and very fun.
What’s the Difference?
Text is the words on the page. “I don’t feel like pizza tonight.”
Subtext is the meaning of those words. “I don’t feel like pizza tonight.” can have a hundred different meanings based on a few factors (which we’ll get into).
Is pizza the character’s favorite meal and it is therefore extremely odd they don’t want pizza? Is the person to be dining with them someone they don’t like and they’re trying to get out of it? Are they worried about running into someone at the restaurant? Is this character sick of their spouse (who is suggesting pizza) and is just so fed up that they don’t want to have a meal with them or talk to them? Are they upset about something that happened today and therefore not hungry?
It can mean they don’t want pizza, but it can also mean a lot of other things, depending.
Context. Context. Context.
Subtext should be set up before the interaction or shortly there after. The context of the situation matters a lot when dealing in subtext.
“I don’t have time to talk right now, sorry.”
Who are they saying this to and what does the reader know about the situation?
Is this the protagonist talking to a love interest that scorned them? To a friend who is worried about them? The king who wants the protagonist to help them in a morally unsound plot?
The context of the situation will change the subtext, which is why it’s important to include when dealing with subtext in writing. A film or play is different, as we can see the character’s faces and hear their tone. Writing prose is a lot different in this regard, so the clues have to be dealt with differently.
They don’t need to be heavy handed. But let’s try this:
His mouth went dry and he felt tightness in his heart. He fidgeted with the bauble between his fingers as he turned to look at her. “I don’t have time to talk right now, sorry.”
The lines before the dialogue give the reader important clues as to the context of the situation. Even if we don’t yet know this woman, we get a sense of who she is to him from his reaction to her coming into the room. We can establish the details later, but this gives a clue.
You don’t have to spell it out word-for-word like The lover who had scorned him walked in the room and pissed Protagonist McGee off with her very presence. She was the last person he wanted to see. “I don’t have time to talk right now, sorry.” if it doesn’t suit you. Figure out the stronger choice for you and your work.
Subtext in Your Own Life
I usually hate the “Write real life conversations!” advice because it’s usually unwise (personal opinion), but in this way, it can be useful.
Think of the times where you had to hide what you were really saying with the words coming out. For example, if you were having a conversation with your mom:
Mom: “How are you doing?”
You: “A bit tired. Been busy around here and stressful, but it’s not going too bad. How are you?”
You don’t want to worry about your mom, but you’re a lot more stressed than you let on. Depending on the extremes, you might be near the end of your rope, but you don’t say that for whatever reason. Then you change the subject by asking how she is without clarifying your feelings completely.
This happens all the time. Sarcasm, passive aggression, an offhand comment, or a backhanded compliment. True, they aren’t all ill-intentioned or sassy, but they’re subtle and we do this all time.
How does this apply to your characters? What kind of situations are they in that they can’t or don’t want to say what they really mean?
I touched on this with the scorned lover example, but I want to go a little more in depth.
As I said, film and theatre have it a bit easier (or harder, depending on your view) in this regard. Writers of prose need to be clear in a different way of what the characters mean by the words they say.
This can be done with dialogue tags. Dialogue tags are a divisive issue. Are they used too much? Do they get more hate than they deserve? Let’s forget those arguments for a moment, for the sake of this discussion.
“I’m sure you are.” He said sarcastically.
This is one way to do it. It’s difficult to describe sarcasm without actually hearing it. Even when hearing it, sometimes it’s obvious and sometimes it’s said with complete sincerity to either fool the listener or catch them off guard.
Another way is through actions.
She turned her back and Protagonist McGee rolled his eyes. “I’m sure you are.” He said.
He rolled his eyes behind her back. Whatever she said prior to his statement prompted him to roll his eyes (that he didn’t want her to see) and then he spoke. The sarcasm here isn’t explicitly stated, but it’s heavily implied.
Breaking away from sarcasm, let’s try this:
He looked at her with tears in his eyes. “Is my father dead?” He asked.
She hated having to be the messenger of bad news. It never got any easier and she couldn’t even look at him. “Yes.”
On the flip-side:
He looked at her with tears in his eyes. “Is my father dead?” He asked.
“Yes.” Protagonist McGee said. She had no sympathy for Side-Character. His father was rotten to the core and the world was a better place with him gone.
Notice the difference in these exchanges (I apologize at how poorly they are written)? Another strategy to give hints is to let the reader into what the character is thinking by stating it. In the first exchange, McGee was sympathetic, she didn’t want to be the bearer of bad news and felt terrible doing so. In the second, she doesn’t care that this man has lost his father because she felt that it was right that he died.
The strategies you use will depend on what your goal is in the dialogue exchange. What information do you want to convey? What do you want the readers to learn about the story/characters? How do you want to grow and develop your characters?
Subtlety is something that, at least for me, rarely shows up in my first drafts. It’s a lot easier to be subtle when you have the whole thing to work with and edit at will, as opposed to just trying to nail down what actually happens.
Let’s try it.
“You are the greatest Lord Knight that ever lived, sir.” Protagonist McGee said.
“This is wonderful news, do make the king aware. Perhaps then he’ll promote me above street brawls and guard duty.” The Knight said.
Now we unpack it.
Protagonist McGee is being polite here, addressing him by titles. Perhaps it’s because he/she is a formal person, or of lower station, or out of respect for this knight and his accomplishments. Or some combination of those things.
The knight however never explicitly says “I am very overqualified for the jobs the king has me do and I am resentful of it.” Instead he employs sarcasm and wit to get the same point across. This knight knows his skills. He doesn’t need Protagonist McGee to tell him that. We also learn that the knight isn’t the type of person to say “Thank you for your complement.” He’s more abrasive than that, practically shutting down McGee’s point for the sake of his own bitterness. It completely contrasts the formal respect McGee gave him, which shows the contrast of character, their feelings/views, and their positions.
It’s not the most subtle exchange, but it will do. In just that one sentence that wasn’t too heavy-handed, we learned a decent amount of information about both characters in this exchange.
The Character’s Feelings are the Heart of This
Subtext is all about getting how the character’s feel across to the reader without them explicitly saying it in dialogue. The other characters don’t necessarily have to know this.
Here’s another exchange. Let’s assume Protagonist McGee has a crush on Love Interest and Love Interest doesn’t know it.
“I don’t know what you see in her.” Protagonist McGee said.
“She’s nice. We don’t argue much and she’s beautiful to boot. What more could a man ask for!” Love Interest said with a laugh.
Protagonist scoffed. “Sounds terribly boring. I’d be careful if I were you. Rich girls often go slumming and then dump off the men when a richer suitor comes calling.”
“Why are you being so nasty?” Love Interest asked.
“I’m merely trying to look out for you! You might do well to heed my advice once in a while.”
“Why can’t you just be happy for me?”
“Because you’re being an idiot.”
Love Interest stood from the table. “Let me know when you’ve gotten that stick out of your ass.”
Protagonist McGee doesn’t care that Love Interest’s girlfriend is rich, nice, beautiful or what have you. McGee is angry that Love Interest is seeing someone other than herself and is happy with his relationship. The reader knows this, but Love Interest doesn’t, leaving Love Interest hurt and confused as to why McGee is being so mean.
We also learn a few things about McGee. McGee can’t admit her crush to Love Interest. Maybe she doesn’t want to admit her feelings, maybe she feels it’s wrong to do so while he’s in a relationship so she resorts to insults. All the great things he says about his girlfriend are things he’s not saying about her or to her. He sees something in his girlfriend that he doesn’t in McGee and it makes McGee upset.
We also see McGee resorting to pettiness, insults, and immaturity. If she tells him her feelings, he’ll figure this out quickly and perhaps see her as even less a potential partner. This tells us a lot about the way McGee feels and her character.
This is a handy tool. McGee feels one thing but says another. Her words directly conflict with Love Interest’s feelings, and her feelings about Love Interest (calling him an idiot) directly conflict with how she feels about him. What is being said isn’t the “real” conversation being had and the reader knows this, is in on it, and it’s much more fun that way.
In this way, we see the characters’ feelings being the center of the words that they say and we learn a whole from writing it that way.
Don’t Trick Your Readers
Part of the fun of subtext is that the reader is in on the entire thing. In longer or more complicated exchanges of dialogue, the reader has to know what the hell these characters are talking about or they’re going to end up confused or bored.
If a character says “I hate you” to another, without any clues or setting up that exchange, the reader will assume this character is telling the truth.
If the character says “I hate you”, but we know he/she is saying this to a person he/she actually loves, then that’s a different story.
The thing is, the reader must learn either before or quickly thereafter that the speaker loves the other character. The writer must guide the reader, not hold their hand, but at least point the reader in the right direction.
Otherwise, it feels like a trick. Like you tried to play a joke on the reader so that you could say “Gotcha!” That’s not fun. The reader will have more fun if they’re in on it.
- Once you have completed your drafts, go through and see where you can make things happen with the subtext.
- As you’re writing, keep the characters’ feelings in mind. Where can they say how they feel? Where can’t they and what to they say instead?
- Do exercises. Write plain dialogue or find plain dialogue somewhere that you can skew however you want depending on subtext.
Create subtext with this plain exchange by crafting a scene around it:
A: Stop doing that.
A: I said stop.
B: I can’t help it.
A: You have to do something about it.
B: What do you suggest.
A: You can work on it in your free time.
B: Maybe. I really just don’t want to talk about it.
A: Or just not with me.
B: What is that supposed to mean?
A: Whatever you think it means.