This week, Alida answers the riddle:
What’s not on the page, but makes your story powerful?
Subtext, of course.
If you prefer reading to watching or listening, read on. Otherwise, click on the video above, sit back, and enjoy another Word Essential 60 Second Writing Tip!
This week, I’ve been thinking about subtext.
Subtext seems like one of those intangible, mysterious aspects of story craft that is hard to do well, but when you do it well, it’s magical.
What is subtext anyway?
Subtext is defined simply as an underlying and often distinct theme in a piece of writing or conversation.
In practice, subtext is more than that.
Subtext is the story beyond the plot. It is the stuff you don’t put on the page for the reader, but that the reader comes to understand as a result of taking this journey with your protagonist.
Subtext is the stuff of theme.
Subtext is the stuff that lingers in the readers mind long after putting down the book.
Subtext is the stuff the reader has to discover for himself, and doing so is the reward for engaging with the story on a deeper level.
Subtext is what makes a story meaningful.
You might be thinking, “Well, that’s great, Alida. I sure would like to have a memorable, meaningful story, but I still don’t know what subtext is.”
So let me give you a couple of examples.
Remember, subtext is what you don’t put on the page that the reader discovers for himself by taking the journey through your story with your protagonist.
Let’s look at Hemingway’s shortest story ever.
For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.
That’s it, six words, and yet it is lauded as a complete story. There are even contests where you can submit your own six-word flash fiction. So what makes that a complete and meaningful and memorable story? It’s six words. There are no characters, no names, no setting, no dialogue, so what makes that a story, besides the fact that Hemingway wrote it?
We do the work of the writer when we read those six words. Our imagination takes a journey, inferring the couple who wrote the ad. We see their backstory, before they had to write the ad. She’s pregnant. They’re excited, full of hope, shopping for strollers. It’s wonderful. And then comes that day they get the terrible news. And then they have to write that ad, selling the baby shoes. We empathize deeply with the parents. We grieve for them. We’re sad for their loss and the terribleness behind these tiny six words.
All of that work of our imagination, filling in the details around those six words, is subtext. That’s what makes it a memorable, meaningful story, despite its lack of character, setting, and dialogue. Plot we infer, so the plot is implied.
In a short story or novel, subtext becomes more complicated, simply because of the scope of the work. Also, the payoff isn’t immediate. Your reader isn’t going to bust a gut because of what you didn’t write in that paragraph.
Sorry. It doesn’t work that way in literature. We can discuss humor in literature another day.
Here’s an example of subtext in a short story I worked on this week.
In this story, my character Delilah says:
I find myself grinning. It isn’t a full smile, it isn’t happiness, but it’s some kind of glee. I felt this once as a girl, when I told Carly to hand over her roller skates, and she did. Just like that.
In an earlier draft of the story, Delilah says:
I find myself grinning. It isn’t a full smile, it isn’t happiness, but it’s some kind of glee. I felt this once as a girl, when I told Carly to hand over her roller skates, and she did. Just like that. This must be what power feels like.
Aren’t Delilah’s thoughts more interesting and rewarding when I don’t mention power? You know that whatever has her grinning now is about power, just like getting Carly’s skates was about power. If I tell you that, for any reason at all, I’m denying you the pleasure of subtext.
And, I do think Delilah is reflective enough to say that line, so it wasn’t an issue with voice or meaning or style. I thought better of that sentence because it was too on the nose. It was like explaining my punch line to my audience. I trust my reader to get it.
I see manuscripts all the time in which writers don’t trust the reader to get it. They show us something, often beautifully, then they ruin it by explaining it away. I call those 2x4s, as in you’re beating your reader about the head with a 2×4.
Whether you’re explaining yourself to your reader, or are simply deep in your character’s head and it seems a perfectly natural thought, as in Delilah’s case, you’ll want to find those sentences when you revise and cut them.
Remember, “getting it” is the reader’s reward for his mental gears keeping up with the story.
I mentioned theme in relation to subtext. I said, “Subtext is the story behind the plot. It is the stuff of theme.”
In the brief example I gave, the plot is Delilah making Carly give up her roller skates. That consists of characters and action. Delilah walks up to Carly and says, Hand them over. Carly does.
It’s as straightforward as it gets.
The theme of that story is Power.
How does the reader know it’s about power? Because the reader understands that if you make someone do something, you have power over her. The reader sees that premise play out in the action of the plot, without being told that’s what’s happening.
I hope that helps you understand what Subtext is and why it’s a good thing.
Let’s distill this down into your 60 Second Writing Tip:
Subtext is: the story beyond the plot. It is the stuff you don’t put on the page, but that the reader understands it as a result of taking this journey with your protagonist.
Subtext is closely related to theme and gives our stories depth and meaning.
Writers need to convey theme through action and trust readers to get it.
That’s because our shared human experience will lead us to shared interpretations of events. It’s why the entire audience laughs at the punchline. It’s why everyone can agree that Delilah’s smile is about feeling powerful. It’s why we all feel bad for the people behind those six words in Hemingway’s shortest story ever.
“Getting it,” whether we’re talking about a joke or literary subtext is part of the fun of story.
And, as writers, we should never deny our readers the pleasure of getting it.
That’s this week’s 60 Second Writing Tip. I hope you have a better sense of what Subtext is and why you want to use it!
I’m Alida, your writing coach at Word Essential. Have a great writing day!
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