“Now, it’s important to note that it’s not enough just to create blanks in your story. […] You have to create pregnant blanks.
Blanks that are full of hints about your characters’ pasts, their relationships, their desires, their motivations.
You have to give readers a starting point for discovering the wealth of everything that lies under the surface of your story.” (Weiland)
Think of it as a detective work. At first, we just get clues, but slowly a broader, scarier, more shocking or amazing picture appears.
The reader suspects there is more to the story. If they see the shadow of an object, they can suspect it is a tree, or a man, or a building, but it is hard to figure out how they all look like and what part they play in the story, but it is intriguing.
The relationship between two people, especially if these people hate each other, depends on what kind of relationship they had before. The problem is, the reader does not know what caused the conflicts between them. It is the job of the writer to hint at what may have separated both characters.
Maybe the cause of the hatred plays an important part in the climax of the story. Maybe the hidden truth will determine the outcome of the story.
The subtext reveals another dimension to the story.
It adds authenticity to the characters.
It adds conflicts and tension to ordinary situations.
In order to pull off the subtext, make sure your main character is deeply conflicted or has mixed feelings. There is much to be seen than just what appears.
In the TV Show “Firefly,” the captain Mal, a veteran, is at first a man who is trying to survive by smuggling goods and does not want to be mixed up into people’s affairs. At the end of the show, he reveals his true personality, aka someone who gets in a fight only when it is worth fighting for, but a good guy. Along the series, we get hints at his “weak” or “heroic” side and slowly learn he cares more than it appears. He just chooses not to show it. We do get hints at his thoughts processes when he takes actions that surprise us. Only at the end of the series do we understand who he really is, and it takes us many episodes to know him well.
This is subtext.
We know he will have to fight for his passengers otherwise there is no story, but we do not expect to find the real captain Mal at the end. We are happy and relieved to find the real Mal.
This process mimics the real life when we discover who the people around us truly are behind the facades and masks. It makes the story sound more authentic.
Every hero in a story has a secret that reveals itself to the reader as he reads.
Messages are hidden in the story, subtle messages, messages that make us curious, that surprise us, that make us want to know what happens at the end. We know there is more to this character. We know there is more to this relationship. We know there is more to this world. That is what makes us turn the pages. Clued hit us, at least one clue per chapter in mysteries. We are waiting for the enemy to reveal himself, for the friend to turn his coat, for the real feelings of lovers to emerge, for the real murderer to turn up. It is thrilling.
Hints that there is a subtext:
- “Characters don’t say what they mean for several reasons: doing so might hurt another character, or it might hurt them; they’re unsure of what they’re feeling; they don’t know how to articulate what they’re feeling; they fear what will happen, what they may lose, if they speak their minds.” (http://theeditorsblog.net/2011/05/17/subtext-revelation-of-the-hidden/)
- When heroes talk about two different things, but believe they are talking about the same thing;
- When subtext reveals a truth that cannot be expressed by words, when it shows the character being haunted by something he cannot reveal;
- When there is an almost palpable tension (when a wife becomes mad or frustrated when her husband pulls out his wife’s chair and tries to help, we are baffled. What we don’t know yet is that she is sick, but does not want to appear weak while the husband tries to be helpful. Sexual tension also works);
- When the tone of the dialogue does not match the body language (“I’m not mad” but I still slam the door);
- When the mood of the scene does not match the actual action (a policeman acting rough to someone convicted, but slipping him a key when no one is watching);
- When the real story is being told through the characters’ gazes, contradictory actions, dichotomies, and slips of words;
- When two different feelings are being expressed at the same time (I asked for the chair further from Ash, but secretly dreamed she would sit next to me anyway).
The ways we can fail at subtext:
- “If the author is giving me on-the-nose dialogue, then it’s a sure bet he isn’t going to be able to give me the other subtleties of story and the rich subtext I –and so many other readers– crave.” (Weiland);
-to hint at too many secrets (the reader gets confused);
-to fail to give the character the right motivations (if the hero saves people because he wants fame or he wants to be appreciated, then that does not hint at a deep problem or at an authentic willingness to help);
- if the subtext hints at something beyond the obvious goal (killing the villain, for example, or reestablishing the peace), but the story ends when the main goal is reached. The story is obviously not finished because it ends when all the loose ends are tied up;
- if the subtext makes one ending more interesting than the main one. (If the subtext shows that the hero must end with one person, but the plot makes him end with another person.)
Hill, Beth. “Subtext-Revelation of the Hidden.”
Weiland, K,M. "The Only 5 Ingredients You Need fr Story Subtext." <http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/5-ingredients-need-story-subtext/>
Gold, Jami. "Do You KNow Your Story's Subtext?" <http://jamigold.com/2013/08/do-you-know-your-storys-subtext/>