noun - The underlying or implicit meaning, as of a literary work. Although subtextual meaning is not expressed directly, it can often be determined from the linguistic or social context. See also
- Associative Meaning
- Context Clues
- Conversational Implicature
Well, I’m glad we cleared that up. Now that we understand subtext, we’ll be sure to layer it into our work effectively and wow literary critics the world over.
The problem with seeking to define literary terms created by literary types is that they use literary notions to explain them. It all comes off as sounding very … literary. I mean…Conversational Implicature?
Let me give you a quick, easy-to-understand definition of Subtext:
Subtext is all the things that aren’t being said that connect the reader to the story.
It’s all the things in a scene that the characters aren’t saying, but the reader still picks up on. It’s the elements that evoke a feeling in the reader and lay the foundation for the action to come. It’s the connections that a reader makes to the story by bringing their experience, their attention, and their perceptiveness into play. Subtext is the author’s gift to an astute reader.
Have you ever read a story that grabbed you, pulled you in, had you asking story question after story question, remembering details, fitting the pieces together, trying to anticipate what might happen next and being thrilled when you were right and equally thrilled when the author plausibly surprised you?
That’s subtext. It engages your emotions and mind and draws you into the story as an experience, not an exercise.
Isn't that what we want in a story? Isn't that what we want for readers when they read our stories? So, how can we effectively employ subtext?
First, we must recognize the two basic types of subtext.
This covers things like theme and setting. Things present throughout the entire story. If your story is about redemption, you might have subtext layers like the renewal of springtime, or a rescue puppy, or a pawn shop item as a plot device. If your theme is about the veneer of society that hides a darker underbelly, you might set your story in a suburban neighborhood, or a Regency ballroom or a finishing school. Juxtaposing the setting with the plot is a great subtext tool. MACRO subtext is often revealed when the reader is finished with the book and reflects upon it later. It’s what makes a book linger in the mind afterwards.
This covers things that happen within scenes. Characters that say one thing and mean another. Characters that withhold information from one another, but the reader knows it. A line that a character says that the reader wonders if it will come back to haunt that character. A piece of the story puzzle that seems out of place and the reader has to try to fit it in. MICRO subtext is what happens while the story is being read, and it’s what keeps the reader engaged in the story.
One of the reasons mysteries are so popular is that subtext abounds. Detective stories are built on subtext. Who is lying, who is manipulating, and who is guilty? Everything must be evaluated, every clue, every gesture, every word. Deductions are made by the reader, engaging the readers mind and emotions.
Subtext also overflows in romance. Sexual tension and attraction are often, especially at first, and especially in Christian Fiction, delivered as subtext. That first, gradual awakening of feelings, the realization by the reader that there’s something going on there, whether one or both of the characters is aware of it. Subtext is often what one character and the reader knows, but none of the other characters know. It’s privileged information. And who doesn’t want to be in on a secret?
If you want to study up on the use of subtext, I’m going to recommend you read “The Crocodile on the Sandbank” by Elizabeth Peters. Peters was a MASTER at subtext, plot, and characterization, and by the end of the story, your grasp of all three will be better!
Now, go forth and gift your readers with subtext, remembering these three basic foundations:
Subtext is the truth of the story, every character is trying to conceal or reveal it, and the reader is actively involved in sorting out who is who and who knows what.
Subtext springs from the fact that you realize both your reader and your characters have inner lives, and that during the reading of a story, those inner lives intersect.
Subtext respects the reader’s intelligence, gives them more than just what’s on the surface, and actively engages both what they know and what they want to know from your story.