Subtext 101: What lies beneath (Part 2 of 2)

In Part 1 of this post, we compared subtext in a novel to a musical score in a film. Like a theatrical score, subtext does its work in the background—creating mood, tension, and cadence. Without subtext, a novel can feel flat and one-dimensional.

Because subtext is ambiguous and difficult to explain, we defined subtext as content that exists beneath the text. In dialogue, subtext is the unspoken information conveyed in the exchange. In prose, it is meaning that must be discovered, inferred, or intuited by the reader.

Without subtext, a novel can feel flat and one-dimensional.

Like so many things in life, defining something is not the same as applying it. This is doubly true with something as enigmatic as subtext. It can reinforce the printed message, transmute it, or even contradict it. To illustrate this point, and provide you with the tools and knowledge to better incorporate subtext into your fiction, I think it’s helpful to break down subtext into four categories.

Subtext in dialogue:

Even if you’re unfamiliar with subtext or not consciously trying to incorporate it into your scenes, you might be shocked to know you’re already writing it. Every time you use a beat in dialogue, that’s subtext. Body language is the low-hanging fruit in this regard.

Body Language

Example 1A

“I can’t live without you,” Richard said, pulling Wendy into his arms, “I love you.”

“I love you too,” Wendy said, melding into his embrace and closing her eyes.

Example 1B

“I can’t live without you,” Richard said, pulling Wendy into his arms, “I love you.”

“I love you too,” Wendy said, her gaze going to the middle distance as she let him hug her.

In both versions, the spoken dialogue is identical. It’s the beats that differ and in doing so convey critical information to the reader. In version A, the subtext is that Wendy accepts Richard’s embrace and feels affection for him. In version B, the subtext is that Richard’s affection is unrequited. Because subtext is strongly subjective, Wendy’s exact feelings toward Richard are open to interpretation and debate. At a minimum, in Version B Wendy is uncertain about her love for Richard. Some readers may infer more, however, and conclude that Wendy feels apathetic toward Richard, or possibly even antipathy.

This subjectivity is the beauty of subtext, and what makes it such a wonderful tool for the writer. Subtext utilized with a light touch will be interpreted differently by readers and colored heavily by the reader’s state of mind and personal experience.

Innuendo, insincerity, and double-entendre

In addition to body language, dialogue itself is fertile ground for sewing subtextual seeds. Incorporating subtext into the spoken word is more challenging, however, than all of the other methods because by definition subtext is the “unspoken” meaning. As such, the context of the scene must play a role in providing the reader with the cues necessary to understand that the dialogue is meant to convey a double-meaning.

Example 2

“Sergeant Skinner, a word,” the unit commander said to the Bravo squad leader, beckoning him with a curl of his index finger.
“What’s on your mind, sir?” the seasoned soldier said, once he was out of earshot of the rest of the men.
“The security system is scheduled to go offline at midnight for fifteen minutes for a software patch. During that blackout, your orders are to remain on base and not engage the enemy.”
“You mean the same enemy who murdered our teammates in Alpha squad while we sheltered in place here like cowards?”
“Yes,” the commander said simply, his expression unreadable for the camera in the corner.
“And if I perceive a potential threat to this compound during that fifteen-minute window?” the soldier asked. “What are your orders then, Sir?”
“Unfortunately, I will be unreachable during that period,” said the Commander, “and so I am leaving any such decision in your capable hands.”

The innuendo is thick in this exchange. If the spoken words are taken at face value, the commander is informing his subordinate of a potential vulnerability at the compound and ordering the soldier not to leave the base. However, flowing beneath the exchange is a river of subtext with a contradictory message—something to the effect of: There’s an upcoming window of opportunity to avenge the murder of your brothers. Whether you take the shot is up to you.

In crafting this exchange, I intentionally did not include any body language to augment or bolster the subtext. A wink, a nod, a “knowing” smile, or even the Commander placing a hand on his subordinate’s shoulder while speaking would virtually remove all ambiguity from the scene for the reader by signaling that there is an unspoken conveyance of information between the two men. But as you can see, a combination of context and clever dialogue achieves the goal without using a body language cue.

Example 3

April kissed her mother-in-law, Ruth-Anne, on the cheek goodbye at the door and thanked her for coming.
To which Ruth-Anne replied, “Such a lovely party, dear. Those little cucumber sandwiches you made—the ones with the crusts cut off—were so quaint, bless your heart.”

In this scene, the subtext is even more pronounced than the previous example with the soldiers. Here, despite being presented with only as single line of dialogue,  we can infer much. “Such a lovely party” could be a compliment, but the follow-on sentence calling April’s culinary efforts “quaint” and finishing off with “Bless your heart” (a colloquial Southern backhand) shows that Ruth-Anne is not being magnanimous. The subtext here is that April’s relationship with her mother-in-law is strained, if not contentious.

Subtext in setting & description

How people, places and things are described has immense power to influence a reader’s perception of a scene and convey subtext. For example:

Example 4A

Larry opened the passenger side slider door of the Honda Odyssey. Inside, the minivan was packed to bursting—with luggage, pillows, snacks and travel games shoved into every nook and cranny. “Climb in kids,” he said, with an expectant grin. “We’re going on an adventure.”

Example 4B

Larry opened the passenger side slider door of the conversion van. The cargo compartment had no seats, just a stained and filthy piece of old carpet covering the bare metal floor. “Climb in kids,” he said, with an expectant grin. “We’re going on an adventure.”

Once again, the spoken dialogue is identical in both variations. Only the setting has changed, and this is accomplished solely by altering the description of the van.

In 4A, the implication is that Larry is a father addressing his children after packing the family minivan for vacation. Note, that this is accomplished entirely via subtext as there is no mention of the word vacation or description of Larry as the children’s father. The only information communicated clearly to the reader is the type of van and that it is packed with items typically associated with a road trip.

In 4B, the description of the van has changed and consequently so has our opinion of Larry and his intentions. Instead of a good-natured suburban dad, the presumption here is that Larry is a creepy scumbag, probably in the act of trying to orchestrate a kidnapping. Again, no physical description of Larry is provided, nor do we know his backstory or intentions from narration. The message was accomplished entirely by subtext using a few choice descriptive words when creating the setting. Also of note, the beat “he said, with an expectant grin” carries over, but takes on a decidedly malevolent undertone in the second version when the minivan is replaced with a dirty cargo van.

Subtext in structure

A third method for creating subtext is by how the author structures the novel itself. Probably the most common and popular example of subtext via structure in modern suspense fiction is the Prologue. A prologue, when properly executed, will set a broad subtext theme that informs and influences the reader’s perception during the rest of the novel.

For example, the Andrews & Wilson novel WAR SHADOWS, the book opens with a prologue depicting a capture-kill mission from the hero’s past. On this mission, the hero (John Dempsey) is prosecuting a mid-level terrorist at a compound in the Iraqi desert. During the melee that follows, the terrorist deploys one of his followers as a suicide bomber as a distraction to abet his escape. The prologue ends with Dempsey wounded by shrapnel, cursing himself for not recognizing the ploy, and hobbling after his quarry into the night. Chapter One is set years later, but the subtext established in the prologue is twofold: first, the bad guy who got away is still out there causing mayhem, and second that a future faceoff between Dempsey and this past nemesis is inevitiable.

Like a well-crafted prologue, flashbacks and interludes can be utilized in the body of a novel to create subtext or contradict the conclusions the reader is beginning to draw as the story unfolds. While flashbacks typically flow from the protagonist’s POV, interludes typically do not. Both flashbacks and interludes reveal new information to the reader, and as such provide a great opportunity to weave in subtext.

Subtext in narration & internal monologue

Narration and internal monologue are arguably the most straightforward tools in your subtext toolbox. How an author chooses to tell the sequence of events in the story, the narrative voice, the narrative point of view and the degree of omniscience and reliability all have a profound impact on the gravity of the subtext in the novel.

No novel in recent memory has utilized narrative subtext more creatively than Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL. The author’s decision to alternate between two unreliable narrators wreaked havoc with the novel’s subtextual rhythms. When executed properly, an unreliable narrative structure will eventually cause the reader to question all predictions made and conclusions drawn based on subtext.

Most novels, however, do not use unreliable narrators. The vast majority of thrillers, mysteries, fantasy, and science fiction works are written in first person or third person subjective point of view. In these cases, the writer is reliably representing the POV character’s world knowledge, beliefs, and emotional state. The more the writer draws the reader into the character’s world, the more emotionally connected the reader feels to the character. In this next example, I’m going to illustrate how to use subtext in third-person subjective POV with a reliable narrator while using internal monologue to perform the heavy lift at the end.

Example 5

Jake trusted Billy unconditionally, which is why he’d agreed to tag along on this drop. Sure, Billy could be a hothead, but his heart was always in the right place. They’d been friends for what, a decade now, and ten years was an eternity in this business.
“Is this the place?” Jake said to Billy who was still clutching the steering wheel tight despite having pulled into the parking garage.
“Yeah.”
“You gonna get outta the car?”
“In a minute…”
“Billy, you all right?” Jake asked, a shiver chasing down his spine.
“Yeah, it’s all good,” Billy said with a nervous sniff. “It’s all going to work out in the end.”
“What do you mean? What’s all going to work out in the end?” Jake asked, just as four black government SUVs came tearing into the garage.
A lump formed in Jake’s throat. Oh Billy, what have you done?

In this example, we’re in Jake’s head. Jake is a reliable narrator and so any subtext we create has to be honest from his POV. The scene is structured to create an impending case of betrayal that builds with each sentence. In the opening description, we learn that Jake trusts Billy and they have history together. Because this is the first piece of information the reader learns, the subtext should be comforting, but it has the opposite effect because of the line “ten years was an eternity in this business.” We don’t know what the “business” is but the subtext is that Jake’s line of work is not a safe and reliable one. Next, the dialogue between the two friends amps up the subtext. Jake asks if Billy is okay and Billy says yes, but his body language and affect contradict his speech. Finally, Jake’s internal monologue drives the point home. He never uses the word betrayal, but the subtext here is unmistakable—Billy has sold him out to whoever is arriving in the black SUVs.

Putting it all together. Combining elements for more power and complexity.

In this post, I’ve outlined multiple different ways to incorporate subtext into your scenes. With a little practice and effort, you can combine elements and thereby amp up the emotional angst and tension for your readers. See if you can identify each of the techniques I used in crafting the scene below featuring a recognizable character from fairy tale lore:

Example 6

Scarlett stared at the basket as her mother packed a baguette, a wedge of hard cheese, and some fresh fruit. “Are you sure you can’t come with me?” the little girl asked, her voice cracking.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart, but you know I can’t,” her mother said. “I just have too many chores to get done this afternoon.”
“But why do I need to take this stuff to grandmother’s house anyway?” she said, her gaze shifting from the basket to the kitchen window and the tree line across the clearing in the distance.
“Because the last time I spoke to Gran-gran she sounded nothing like herself. Her voice was so hoarse and gruff I barely recognized her. She wouldn’t even open the door, for goodness sake…said she didn’t want me to catch her cold,” her mother said. “It’s been two days without a peep since. Someone really should check on her.”
The late afternoon sun was already casting long shadows and Scarlett could see that the forest was already growing dark. She shifted her gaze and eyed her mother.
“Now what’s that look for?” her mother said, closing the flaps of the basket and handing it to Scarlett. “Don’t tell me a big girl like you is afraid of the forest? You’ll be fine.”
Mom’s right, I’m just being silly, Scarlett thought, shrugging on her lucky red cape. I’m sure there’s absolutely nothing to worry about…

A little subtext can go a long way to improving the tension and suspense in your plot as well as the complexity and depth of your characters. The easiest way to incorporate subtext into your prose is to set subtext goals for the novel overall as well as specific chapters or scenes. Because subtext is like a musical score playing in the background, you’re better off thinking about it before you put pen to paper rather than going back and trying to add it in later. The four methods outlined above (dialogue, setting, structure, and narrative) are a framework to help you with the mechanics of subtext, but I encourage you to experiment with your own techniques as you explore “what lies beneath” in your next novel.

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