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Subtext: What Lurks Beneath!

© 2002 by Deborah M. Hale

I remember the first time I saw the movie Jaws. Watching as the camera panned across that beautiful ocean vista with my stomach tied in reef knots and my heart pounding harder than the surf. I couldn't look away.

There was nothing about the lapping waves and the distant horizon that should have sparked the tense expectancy inside of me. As part of a different film, the images on screen would probably have been soothing...maybe a little boring if they'd gone on too long. But I knew, as did all the other tightly-wound moviegoers in the theater, that something lurked beneath the surface of that water, waiting to strike.

Pre-release advertising had primed me. The poster art which showed an unsuspecting swimmer with a great white shark menacing beneath her almost made the film's tag line, "Don't go in the water" redundant. Even if I'd been blind and deaf to the hype, John Williams' ominous two-note cello and bass chords would have made me wary of that serene-looking seascape.

As storytellers, wouldn't we all like to keep readers as engaged in our novels as Steven Spielberg kept audiences with his first blockbuster? One way we can get closer is by keeping in mind something that should lurk beneath even the smoothest surface of our fictional dialogue - subtext.

In Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger defines subtext as, "what the character is really saying beneath and between the lines." Dialogue is what your characters say. Subtext is what they really mean. If you've ever sworn to a girlfriend that a particular outfit does not make her look fat, you probably know more about subtext than you might realize.

We human beings are carefully socialized not to go around blurting out everything that's on our minds. We don't tell Aunt Mary the scarf she knit us for Christmas is hideous. We make chitchat with an acquaintance who has had serious problems in her life, unless she gives some conversational signal that she might be willing to talk about them. We can have a fever of 103, yet still respond, "Fine," when someone asks us how we are.

Even with our nearest and dearest, sometimes especially with them, we verbally dance around painful or contentious subjects, fearful of hurting feelings, confronting issues that upset us or betraying unpleasant aspects of ourselves, such as insecurity or jealousy. Often we may not understand or acknowledge deeply buried feelings that can color our words. Why should our fictional characters be any different?

They shouldn't.

A character who always says exactly what he or she truly thinks will probably strike readers as phony or boring. Good fictional dialogue should crackle with subtext or keep it thrumming ominously below the surface. Nothing brings internal conflict into sharper focus than when characters' words are at odds with their thoughts and feelings. Since conflict is what drives our stories and keeps readers turning pages late into the night, anything that enhances it deserves a place in our work.

Well-trained actors know all about subtext. Since plays/films are comprised of action and dialogue, it is up to the actor to convey the thoughts and emotions that underlie her character's words. To do this, she must get into the head and heart of her character and put the scene she's playing into the overall context of the story, taking into account the character's backstory, goals and motivation. Then the actor must employ a subtle range of gestures, stance, facial expressions and verbal intonation that will cue the audience to her true state of mind.

The novelist should approach dialogue and subtext in a similar fashion, as though acting out the scene for the reader. Bear in mind everything you know about this character, including things he may not know about himself, then find creative ways to make the reader aware there is something contradictory, perhaps even volatile beneath the surface of his dialogue and actions.


Draw on your lifetime of experience with subtext. Remember how your mother always talks about your cousin's three beautiful children when she really means, "find a nice man, settle down and give me grandbabies." How your husband clumsily changes the subject whenever you mention his old girlfriend. How a coworker kisses up to a boss you both dislike. If you've never been especially aware of subtext before, start asking yourself, "What did he really mean when he said that?" Or try an exercise where you take a few lines of dialogue from a play or film, then write in what you guess the character is actually thinking.

The novelist has an advantage over the actor when it comes to conveying subtext - introspection. You can directly spell-out the characters' thoughts that run contrary to their words. Try to avoid relying on this technique alone, or you could end up madly head-hopping throughout your story. Instead, pillage the actor's toolbox for a telling gesture, hesitation, or vocal tone that will alert readers to the true emotions lurking beneath the dialogue. For an added twist, you might have other characters interpret these non-verbal cues incorrectly.

Keep in mind that subtext will manifest itself differently in different types of characters. An insecure character may talk about a 'safe' subject in a way that makes it a metaphor for the emotionally charged one. For example, a woman might get very angry over the antics of a badly-trained dog, when she's really venting her feelings about the dog's irresponsible master. A stubborn character might simply clam-up if the dialogue ventures too near a touchy subject, thereby saying as much with his silence as he ever would with words. A peacemaker might subtly turn the conversation to a less contentious topic. An aggressive individual might divert attention from a sensitive subject by saying something provocative to force others into conversational retreat. Try to make sure your character's approach to subtext is consistent with other aspects of his personality.

Don't let my shark talk make you think all subtext is negative or hostile. Human beings are at least as wary of revealing tender feelings as we are of venting anger or admitting despair. Most romantic banter is loaded with subtext and double entendre. Think about how many laughs writers on the show Frasier milked from the hopeless yearning of Niles for Daphne. It was the subtext of every scene involving the two, always lurking. Viewers watched, enjoying the feeling of superiority they got from knowing what was really going on, as Daphne didn't. Subconsciously wondering if this would be the episode where Niles would break down and confessed his feelings, or Daphne would finally notice his increasingly blatant desire for her.

The power of subtext lies in that growing sense of anticipation. Whether they realize it or not, readers are waiting for those moments when the gloves come off and your characters say what they really mean. As in real life, this should be reserved for times of intense emotion. At the climax of an argument, a woman might accuse her husband of the infidelity she's been hinting at for days. In a moment of great intimacy, a man might reveal a painful secret from his past. The euphoria following an episode of danger can ease social inhibitions (as can one drink too many) prompting people to pour out what is in their hearts.

When you as a writer use this sparingly, the way readers know it occurs in real life, these crisis points will be all the more emotionally potent. During the rest of your story, lurking subtext will keep them turning pages, anticipating those moments when raw emotion will lunge up from the depths to wreak havoc with your characters' lives.

"I couldn't put it down." Isn't that what writers want to hear readers say about our books? Especially when the gleam in their eyes and their eager tone let us know they really mean it.



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