How to Use Subtext to Write a Story That Speaks to the Soul
Subtext is one of the most powerful tools a storyteller could use. It grasps the reader’s hand and invites them to plunge deep beneath the surface of your story. It transforms a series of events into an experience that means something.
So that’s all the lovely stuff about subtext. The tough part is that subtext is, by definition, all the things that aren’t said.
How are you supposed to get really good at writing something you’re not supposed to actually write?
Fortunately, it’s not as difficult as it sounds. As a matter of fact, in less than 1,500 words, you’ll learn:
- What subtext is
- What it does
- How to recognize it
- How to write it
All the important things! As always, let’s start with talking about why this topic matters.
Subtext and Its Role in Storytelling
Subtext is the unspoken or implied meaning behind the words that are actually said or written. For example, imagine your mom says, “You’ve been so busy!” You might assume what she means is, “You’re not calling enough.”
Of course, subtext has purposes beyond passive aggression. Ernest Hemingway explained it best with the Iceberg Theory—the idea that each scene should go much deeper than the text itself.
Hemingway believed that writers could help their audiences feel the truth of a scene more profoundly if they kept the important stuff under the surface.
Seems counterintuitive, I know. How are readers supposed to react emotionally to things that aren’t being explained to them? And how are you supposed to communicate an underlying message when it’s, you know, underlying?
Let’s break this down, starting with some examples of well-written subtext.
Examples of Subtext
When Harry Met Sally - After Harry’s (spoiler!) confession of love, Sally tearfully replies:
“I hate you, Harry. I really hate you.”
We, the audience, know what she really means is “I love you.” But because that’s not what she says, we experience this moment not just as a fluffy romantic climax but as the emotional conclusion to a story about two people who’ve already experienced the complexities of a deep connection.
Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen kicks off her most famous novel with some subtextual snark.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
The actual truth Austen is presenting is that this is a world where marrying well is everything.
Why Subtext is so Powerful
So is Hemingway right? Is subtext a more effective way to tell a story than just saying exactly what you mean?
Yep! When you write subtext into your story, your readers get to experience it the way your characters do. After all, we constantly experience subtext in real life.
We talk around uncomfortable topics, hoping the other person will just intuit our underlying message. We give physical gifts meant to represent something deeper. Even seemingly small conflicts carry more weight in our minds because they trigger old grievances.
When you incorporate subtext into your narrative, you add depth to your characters, conflicts, and themes. A scene’s subtext heightens tension, evokes emotion, and sparks revelations.
Uncovering Subtextual Elements
You’ll often find subtext in places like:
Character dialogue - How might their words mask or hint at their true feelings?
Setting description - For example, why did the author choose to point out the fact that a character only has one bowl, one plate, and one chair? Are they highlighting loneliness? Frugality?
Symbols - A symbol is something concrete that represents an abstract idea. When a writer uses symbolism, they’re automatically writing subtext into their narrative.
Allegories - When you write an entire story in which the characters and/or conflicts represent something else—something you probably don’t even mention—you’ve got yourself an allegory. The witch hunt in The Crucible, for example, is an allegory for McCarthyism.
Metaphors - Skillful writers choose their metaphors with the goal of integrating subtext. Let’s say one of your characters has a soft, high-pitched voice. Would you compare it to birdsong or sticky-sweet molasses? Each one delivers a different subtext about who this character is.
Putting Subtext to Work in Creative Writing
Now you know how to search for the hidden meaning in literary texts, but how do you write subtext into your own story? And how can you make sure your readers understand your underlying messages?
Here are some reliable techniques for using subtext to add depth to your narrative.
Take time to fully flesh out your characters. Clarify things like:
- Their goals
- What motivates them
- The obstacles they face
- What they fear most
- Their backstory and how it frames their perception of themselves, their world, and their relationships
As you gradually share these details with your readers, they begin to understand what’s not being said. They can interpret your characters’ behavior and dialogue more accurately. In many cases, they’ll even recognize these hidden messages better than other characters can. (That's called privilege subtext, by the way.)
For some examples, consider what these settings suggest to you:
- A room that hasn’t been changed since the daughter left home ten years ago
- A shack with a fresh coat of paint and a couple of well-kept rocking chairs out front
- A major airport that’s completely empty at 2:00 p.m. on a Saturday
The descriptions you use in your novel also convey subtext. The trick to writing subtext through scene description is selecting concrete details deliberately.
Which specific details will help your reader tap into the deeper truth of a moment? Is it the bored tone the celebrity takes when they tell their assistant they have to fly to Milan for a photo shoot? The sour stench that greets your protagonist as they enter the mysterious old woman’s cottage?
For more tips on how to say more with your scene descriptions, check out this article.
Writing dialogue is what most people think of first when they imagine writing subtext. What are your characters really saying to one another?
Incorporating subtext into dialogue begins with a clear understanding of:
- How your characters talk
- What they’re comfortable saying to one another
- How they’d avoid difficult topics in dialogue
- What they might say to hint at their true feelings or desires
It helps to observe dialogue in real life. What do people say when they’d rather not be direct?
You can find more tips on writing realistic dialogue here.
Themes and Symbols
Finally, you can use themes and symbols to communicate the subtext of individual scenes as well as your entire story.
For example, in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, Filling Station, a doily, plant, and shabby porch furniture serve as symbols for the human instinct to care.
As you write your own story, consider how you might introduce or reuse symbols to clarify your themes through subtext.
The Art of Interpreting Subtext
Learning to write subtext begins with learning how to identify and interpret it. We’ve covered the “identify” part. But how exactly do you interpret subtext?
Going back to Hemingway’s point, the beauty of subtext is that you feel it as much as you understand it. That’s a good place to start. When you recognize that a character is being cagey in their dialogue or that a symbol keeps reappearing, notice what feelings arise for you as a reader. What does your gut say is really going on here?
Then think back to the scenes leading up to this moment. Have you learned anything about the character, conflict, or situation that supports your interpretation?
Now here’s the best part: you don’t have to be right. Subtext invites subjectivity. By leaving some things unsaid, authors give us space to bring our own perspectives to the story.
Have you ever reread a beloved book five years later and gotten something completely different out of it? As we evolve as people, the way we experience art evolves, too. That’s why brilliantly written books—with carefully crafted subtext—hold so much meaning for writers and their readers.
Strategize Your Subtext With Dabble
If you’re a concrete thinker and all this abstract conceptualizing is wearing out your brain, I have a solution.
The Dabble Plot Grid gives you a straightforward way to plan your novel and establish each scene’s subtext. It looks like this:
Even better: all these scene cards are right there as you draft your story, reminding you about the meaning you want to convey as you write descriptions and character dialogue.
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