Writing Reflections: The Magic of Subtext

I was watching the latest episode of a favorite TV show a few weeks ago when it struck me: how often the most intriguing characters are ostensibly talking about one thing, but are simultaneously and silently discussing something deeper and far more difficult. Writers (and psychologists) call this subtext, and once I started really paying attention I noticed it lurking everywhere—even in the cheesiest soundbites.

Subtext in sunrise

How to get it on the page

Subtext in novels is like a sunrise on the water; the light actually comes from the sky, but it’s the reflected colors that convey the richest texture. I could go “deeper” with this analogy, but I think I’ll stop there… and try instead to describe my own development process.

Subtext can work on the page even when characters are alone, thanks to the entwined magic tricks of inner dialogue and authorial voice. Most of my favorite books include scenes that operate at more than one depth; there’s what’s actually happening, what’s being not-said, and maybe even an additional “truth” that rises out of the interweaving of the two. 

Of course this is very, very hard to get right, because if the various layers don’t tie together for the reader the result will be schizophrenic confusion rather than deepened clarity. And it shouldn’t ever be forced. For my own writing, that means subtext either appears in the first draft… or probably shouldn’t ever be included in that particular scene.

The character in Ferry to Cooperation Island who most inspired subtext was Mavis. There was always a great deal more going on inside her head than what actually came out of her mouth; perhaps that’s why so many of you want to hear more about her in the next book. That’s definitely why she’s one of my own favorite characters, and why (you’ll be pleased to hear) she’s such a prominent part of the sequel. 

An example of subtext

The first time we met Mavis, she was rockhopping up the bluff right near her home; both for some much-needed aerobic exercise, and as a tribute to her dying brother, Joe (who had taught her the childhood tricks of safe rockhopping). Halfway up, “A fragile edge of rock broke off under her right foot. For a moment Mavis thought she’d fall, straight down onto another sharp piece of ledge ten feet below. Instead, without thinking, she righted herself and kept climbing.” 

Getting the balance right

I wrote that description in the book’s very first draft, but it was only after many, many revisions that I realized how significant this small act of saving herself was to Mavis’ story. At this key moment, she herself doesn’t realize what she’s done; it’s only toward the end of the book that she begins to understand her own innate ability to “right herself.” That’s why it’s such a great example of subtext; the underlying not-said piece should never be obvious, even to the character herself. And that requires consciously balancing what’s actually on the page with what’s left to the imagination—and then trusting the reader to tie it all together. 

Mavis continues to inspire and surprise in the sequel, and I look forward to ferreting out gems like these from the current hot mess of a first draft—though it will take me many more sunrises to do so. Meanwhile, do you have another example of subtext, either from a screen (big or small) or a favorite novel? Share it in the comments below, or send me an email. Your thoughtful replies continue to inspire, so thank you!

P.S. Words can have subtext all on their own; read Draft: Shallow or Deep? and Writing and Editing with Latitude