When you think about the books and stories that you most enjoyed reading and that stick in your memory, inspiring thoughts and emotions, what comes to mind? Why are those particular stories so enduring?
Chances are, the story’s scenes were woven with something deeper than what appeared on the surface. As writers, we are always working, practicing, studying to make our stories the best they can be. That’s our job, and today we’re taking a look at an advanced technique we can use to add interest to a scene by giving it an underlying meaning implied by the surface action and dialogue.
I’m talking about subtext.
Like a puzzle, subtext puts the reader’s brain to work, piecing together clues to arrive at the emotional truth of the scene. It makes the story more engaging and more memorable for the reader because the truth of a scene lies not in the words, but in the crux between word and action.
Sometimes, direct dialogue serves your purpose best, but there are situations when your writing will take on greater impact if you keep it a little “off-the-nose” (and in fact, that’s how real dialogue often works). This can be difficult because it means trusting your reader to pick up on the significant subtext, but it’s an important step.
When Should I Use Subtext?
Two specific types of situations are spectacularly well-suited for subtext. They are…
1. When the character has too much to lose by being direct
When intense emotions—like love, hate, anger, and desire—are involved, we’re often afraid to express ourselves openly. It’s too risky. We don’t want to lay it on the line, so we hedge.
That’s what your characters will do, too, when you employ subtext in such a scene.
2. When you want the reader to be an active participant in the scene, actually experiencing the events.
Because of the underlying puzzle, a scene with subtext engages the reader’s brain, giving them an active reading experience, encouraging them to gather and interpret clues to what’s going on beneath the surface.
Feeding the reader direct dialogue or telling them what’s going on directly denies them the opportunity to participate, discovering the meaning of the scene for themselves. Leave some tantalizing blanks for your reader to fill in.
Subtext Literary Definition
Perhaps the best way to illustrate subtext is by looking at some examples. Please follow the links to watch these film clips and get a better grasp of what I mean by subtext.
Subtext Examples in Film
One of the most powerful examples of subtext in a movie scene that I can recall is from No Country for Old Men. It’s chilling to watch one man’s fate balance on the thin edge of a coin, and he doesn’t even understand the undercurrent. We, as viewers, are able to piece it together.
Clarice’s last desperate attempt to extract the killer’s name from Hannibal Lecter is filled with subtext in The Silence of The Lambs.
This fabulous example of subtext from the movie Sideways gives us a much deeper look at the character in a lovely and nuanced way.
Though bread is not an essential ingredient in subtext, I found three good examples involving the staff of life:
The famous French toast scene in Kramer vs Kramer where the men of the family have a “good time” fixing breakfast together.
The famous French toast scene in Ordinary People where the mother’s efficient rejection speaks louder than words.
And check out Tom Cruise fixing a peanut butter sandwich for his kids in War of The Worlds. What does his daughter’s simple line—“Since birth”—reveal about their relationship?
You might enjoy watching this short lecture on Hitchcock’s use of subtext in the movie Rear Window.
Perhaps the best-known example of subtext in film is this clip from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. The use of subtitles works great for the movie, but our challenge is to subtly reveal our character’s thoughts and emotions without resorting to subtitles.
So, how do we do it?
First, you have to know who your characters are, what they want, and what’s at stake if they fail to achieve their goal. Remember, subtext is below the surface, so sometimes it helps to write a practice draft stating what the characters really think, feel, and want. This is the surface level.
Next, it’s time to dig beneath the surface. Here are some techniques you might employ to create subtext.
1. Use double meaning
Take a look at the meet cute scene from Double Indemnity. It’s brimming with double entendre and subtext, allowing plenty of opportunity for the viewer to participate in the scene. You don’t have to create such clever banter in your scene, but using double meanings is a superb way to add subtext.
2. Change the subject
Louise avoids JD’s low-key inquiry into her evasion tactics and changes the subject at the end of this clip from Thelma and Louise.
3. Get physical
In this scene from Frasier, there’s a lot of subtext happening, but for this example I want you to notice what both Daphne and Niles are saying without words while she rubs cream on his burn. Their reaction to Martin’s entrance confirms what we’re all thinking.
4. Contrast dialogue with action
Watch this example from When Harry Met Sally. Which speaks louder—Sally’s words or action?
5. Say it without saying it
A great example of this technique is from Crazy, Stupid Love. I especially like Steve Carell’s last line: “I don’t want you to blow up the house,” because what he’s really saying is he doesn’t want her to blow up their family.
6. Mask the emotion
Ingrid Bergman’s hiding a whole lot of subtext in this clip from Casablanca, and a lot of it is going toward masking her overwhelming emotions.
7. Answer a question with a question
Here’s a quick and humorous example from Tootsie where the viewer can interpret the meaning behind the cameraman’s question and get a kick out of it.
Add subtext to your toolbox
Now that you’re more aware of subtext and know how to create it in your scenes, watch for opportunities to deepen the impact of your stories through subtext. Remember the two situations when it really fits the bill—when the emotional stakes are too high for directness and when you want the reader to be an active participant in the scene.
Like all writing skills, it’s a technique that requires practice, so be sure to look for examples in the stories you read and view, and work on developing it in your own writing. It’s well worth your time and effort!
How about you? Do you enjoy reading a scene with subtext? Do you see how it makes you a participant in the story? Tell us about it in the comments.
First, write two or three paragraphs of a practice draft—direct, without subtext. Use a work in progress or choose from the prompts below.
Next, dig beneath the surface by using one of the techniques discussed in the article to add subtext to your scene. Remember to engage the reader. Invite them to discover the secret undercurrent, the emotional truth of the scene.
A grieving husband speaks to his dead wife.
Girl meets a cute boy at a shopping mall.
Man asks woman to clean up her dog’s mess during a walk in the park.