This is from an article I wrote for Savvy authors in May of 2011.
Last time on Savvy I wrote about layering…so I thought I’d compound the idea by writing about subtext—or what’s below the surface. Subtext tells the story just beneath the story—and draws the reader into the inner lives of the characters. It’s the interesting stuff…the ideas and thoughts that make a reader think.
One of the best examples of subtext is from the movie Jaws. When Roy Schneider, the sheriff, gets a good look at the shark, he says, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” What he thinks/feels is, “Holy crap. The shark is monstrous, we’re all gonna die, and I’m scared to death.” What he says is, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” AWESOME line! And so much more interesting than if he’d said, “Wow. Big shark. I’m scared.”
The underlying meaning or motivation of your characters, what they actually believe is subtext. Keep in mind that most people don’t say exactly what they mean. What fun would that be? It’s the subtext that interests the reader and makes her want to get into the character’s lives.
Also keep in mind that every character thinks differently. So the subtext – their motivation and feelings are different. For a stripper, getting naked in public might not be a big deal. For a young mom who’d just had a baby, well…
The ending of When Harry Met Sally is wonderful with subtext. Harry finally tells Sally he loves her, and she says, “I hate you. I really hate you, Harry.” But Billy Chrystal smiles and says, “I know.” He says that because he’s hurt her, and he knows she really means she loves him. Everyone knows she loves him. But that’s not what she says.
If you really want to watch subtext in action, watch West Wing. Donna is Josh’s assistant, and it’s fairly obvious to everyone, even Josh I think, that she loves him. He plays the field. One time, he says, “All I’m saying is, if you were in an accident, I wouldn’t stop to get a beer.” Donna replies, “If you were in an accident, I wouldn’t stop for red lights.”
While the dialogue rings true, there’s more at play. Donna’s basically saying, “Hey. I love you more than you love me. It’s time you woke up and saw this—and fell in line.” It’s not what she says. But in context, it’s what she means.
A more recent example was on the show Hawaii Five-0. New partners Steve and Danny had just notified a woman that her husband was dead. They’re back in the car and each shares the first time they had to do a notification. It’s obvious it’s a little too much sharing for them both, so one asks if they should listen to the radio. The other says yes. Then they get in a complete argument about the radio station and song. It’s obvious they both could care less about the song – but arguing about anything is preferable to talking about death. Great subtext here!
So…how do you write subtext? Sarcasm and irony are great tools for subtext. Keep those in mind when writing. Another great way to include subtext is to start out with the actual dialogue for your first draft. Say your character is scared. Have him say, “Crap. I’m scared.” Then, when you go back through and edit, make the dialogue more interesting. Have him say something else, like…“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
Keep in mind that subtext is the good stuff. Play around with it. Have fun—go deeper into a character than you’d planned. Forget about surprising your reader. Surprise yourself.