What is Subtext and Why is it Important to Your Story?

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What is Subtext and Why is it Important to Your Story?

Something that doesn’t get talked about enough is the importance of subtext in our writing. In my time as an editor, I’ve found that what most manuscripts needed to empower their scenes and their dialogue was subtext.

It’s understandable that at the time of drafting a writer is mostly concerned with putting down the bones of their story, and they aren’t really looking to build subtleties into their scenes. However, if after several self-edits certain parts of your story still read a little too melodramatic, or it feels like it’s lacking poignancy, then what you could be missing is some subtext.

Subtext is the implied meaning in the narrative of your story. It’s everything that is suggested or hinted at but never explicitly said or shown.

It’s when a character says, “I’m fine,” but their body language or tone of voice says otherwise. Subtext is the hidden meaning behind your character’s voice and actions.

Subtext can help you show rather than tell. It helps make your story more realistic and relatable. By providing context through cues and hints, you make the narrative more intriguing and engaging for the reader.

You can also use subtext to reinforce themes on a subliminal level. You can use it to foreshadow and avoid melodramatic writing.

An example of subtext through dialogue:

In Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet is eager for her daughters to be acquainted with the wealthy Mr. Bingley, but she cannot find anyone to introduce them. When Elizabeth suggests their mutual acquaintance, Mrs. Long, might do so, Mrs. Bennet replies, “I do not believe Mrs. Long will do any such thing. She has two nieces of her own. She is a selfish, hypocritical woman, and I have no opinion of her.”

Here Austen has used subtext in the dialogue to show that Mrs. Bennet has little awareness of herself. Even while she insists that she “has no opinion of her,” she’s vehemently expressing herself about Mrs. Long, thus revealing her resentment towards the woman. By using subtext in Mrs. Bennet’s dialogue here, Austen will help solidify Mrs. Bennet’s lack of awareness and embarrassing behavior later in the story which causes a rift between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.

An example of subtext through action:

In the 2005 movie version of Pride & Prejudice, there’s a scene when Elizabeth and Jane are at last leaving Netherfield after Jane recuperates from falling ill.

In this scene, Jane and Elizabeth are getting into the carriage. As Elizabeth steps up, she’s surprised to have Mr. Darcy offer his hand to help her up. He walks away without a word, but the camera closes in on his hand as Mr. Darcy suddenly flexes it.

In this scene, the makers of the film have used subtext to show that Mr. Darcy has begun to have feelings for Elizabeth. When Matthew McFayden, who plays Mr. Darcy, flexes his hand, he’s telling us, without using any words at all, that Elizabeth has had such an effect on him that the mere touch of her hand is enough to cause a reaction.

An example of subtext through symbolism and setting:

If you’ve watched the film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, you’ll realize that many scenes focus on clocks. To the viewer who’s paying attention, the abundance of clocks will be obvious. By using the symbolism of clocks constantly and perhaps subliminally, the director of that movie subtly reminds the viewers of the importance of time and the passage of it to the story. As we arrive at the climax, we realize that Hermione has been traveling back in time to make it to her lessons with the Time Turner. In the end, the trio rewinds time to try and save Sirius and the hippogriff.

Another example of the subtle use of subtext in the setting of this movie are the close-ups of the Whomping Willow. Many scenes cut to and from this tree usually portraying the weather or showing how violent it can be towards anything that gets near it. This also works to foreshadow future events. Though in the first two-thirds of the movie it may seem irrelevant, toward the end we’ll see this magical willow tree take on a more important role in the course of the story.

Subtext makes your stories and your writing overall richer because it’s how we operate in real life. We often sidestep difficult conversations, we make sarcastic jokes about topics that are hurting us, and more commonly, we’ll say we’re “fine” when we’re really not.

There’s an understood language of symbolism and body language that humans navigate on a psychic level every day. It’s so much richer to have a character act in opposing ways to their inner truths because it shows the complexity of humans as we experience life.

Mrs. Bennet tries to hide how she feels about Mrs. Long, but ultimately she reveals her true feelings. Mr. Darcy tries to remain nonchalant and taciturn, but ultimately, his feelings for Elizabeth become so strong that he makes a subtle gesture that says more than any words ever could. And when a character is in the dark about an important plot point, using symbolism can help a writer convey messages to the reader that will add up once we arrive at the last act.

Incorporating subtext into your story isn’t hard. With the help of an editor to help guide and assist you, you can bring out all those subtleties in your story that can help make your narrative richer, much more poignant, and thus able to resonate more deeply with your readers!


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