Subtext #amwriting

A good story is far more than a recounting of he said, and she said. It’s more than the action and events that form the arc of the story. A good story is all that, but without good subtext, the story never achieves its true potential.

Within our characters, underneath their dialogue, lurks conflict, anger, rivalry, desire, or pride. Joy, pleasure, fear–as the author, we know those emotions are there, but conveying them without beating the reader over the head is where artistry comes into play. The subtext is the hidden story, the hints and allegations; the secret reasoning. It is the content that supports the dialogue and gives private purpose to the personal events.

These are implicit ideas and emotions. These thoughts and feelings may or may not be verbalized, as subtext is most often shown as the unspoken thoughts and motives of characters — what they really think and believe. It also shows the larger picture. It can imply controversial subjects, or it can be a simple, direct depiction of motives. Metaphors and allegories are excellent tools for conveying provocative ideas.

Subtext can be a conscious thought or a gut reaction on the part of the characters. It imagery as conveyed by the author.

When it’s done right, subtext conveys backstory with a deft hand. When layered with symbolism and atmosphere, the reader absorbs the subtext on a subliminal level because it is unobtrusive.

An excellent book on this subject is Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath by Dr. Linda Seger. On the back of this book, subtext is described as “a silent force bubbling up from below the surface of any screenplay or novel.” This book is an important source of information on how to discover and convey the deeper story that underpins the action.

Because subtext is so often shown as internal dialogue, some writers assume that heavy-handed info dumping is subtext.

It’s not. It’s description, opinions, gestures, imagery, and yes–subtext can be conveyed in dialogue but dialogue itself is just people talking.

When characters are constantly verbalizing their every thought you run into several problems:

  1. In genre fiction, the accepted method of conveying internal dialogue (thought) is with italics. A wall of italics is a daunting prospect to a reader, who may just put the book down.
  2. Verbalizing thoughts can become an opportunity for an info dump.

Nevertheless, thoughts (internal dialogue) have their place in the narrative and can be part of the subtext. The main problem I have with them is that when a writer is expressing some character’s most intimate thoughts, the current accepted practice for writing interior monologue in genre fiction is to use italics… lots and lots of italics… copious quantities of leaning letters that are small and difficult to decipher. I recommend going lightly with them.

A character’s backstory is subtext, their memories and the events that led them to where they are now. We use interior monologues to represent a character’s thoughts in real time, as they actually think them in their head, using the precise words they use. For that reason, italicized thoughts are always written in:

  • First Person: I’m the queen! After all, we don’t think about ourselves in the third person, even if we really are the queen. We are not amused.
  • Present Tense: Where are we going with this?

We think in the first person present tense because we are in the middle of events as they happen. Immediate actions and mental commentaries unfold in the present so they are written as the character experiences them.

But memories are different. Memories are subtext and reflect a moment in the past. If brief, they should be written in a past tense to reflect that. If it was a watershed moment, one that changed their life, consider writing it as a scene and have the character relive it.

This will avoid presenting the reader with a wall of italics and gives the event a sense of immediacy. Having the characters relive it brings home the emotion and power of the event and shows the reader why the event was so important to the character that they would remember it so clearly.

Subtext expressed as thoughts must fit as smoothly into the narrative as conversations. My recommendation is to only voice the most important thoughts via an internal monologue, and in this way, you will retain the readers’ interest. The rest can be presented in images that build the world around the characters as in this example:

Benny watched Charlotte as she left the office. Everyone knew she was rich. The gold watch, the sleek sports car she drove could have been owned by any well-employed girl, but something about her screamed confidence and money.

These are Benny’s impressions of Charlotte, and we could put all of that into Benny’s interior monologue, but why? This way, the reader is told all that they need to know about Charlotte, without resorting to an info dump, and we aren’t faced with a wall of italics.

Some things must be expressed as an interior monologue.

Benny looked down at his mop. I’m such an idiot.

The reader has  gained a whole lot of information, in only two sentences.  They think they know who Benny is, and they have a clue about his aspirations. What they don’t know yet, but will discover as the plot unfolds, is who Benny really is and why he is posing as a janitor. That too will emerge via subtext and through descriptions of the environment, conversations Benny has with his employer, his interior monologues, and his general impressions of the world around him.

Don’t forget the senses. Odors and ambient sounds, objects placed in a scene, sensations of wind or the feeling of heat when the sun shines through a window—these bits of background are subtext. Scenes require a certain amount of description. Let’s say we’re writing a short story about a grandfather fixing dinner for his grandson. He’s had to go out shopping, and now he carries his groceries home in a snowstorm, fearing he will slip and fall. How do you convey that in the least obtrusive fashion? I would write it this way:

Willard gazed at the icy stairs leading from the unshoveled walk to the front door, his bag of groceries growing heavier.

Sometimes we see the world and the larger issues through the protagonist’s eyes, and other times we see the protagonist through the setting—what is shown in the scene.

People read the subtext and make conclusions based on what they infer is important in that scene. If it is just there for looks or shock value, it becomes an instance of Chekhov’s Gun and should be removed. Everything that is remarkable (such as a gun) must be important to the scene or serve a later purpose.

The subtext must be organic, purposeful, and not just there to dump info or fluff the word count. I like books where the scenery is shown in brief impressions, and the reader sees only what needs to be there, so we aren’t distracted by unimportant things. Detail implies importance, so choose what you detail carefully.

Subtext—metaphor and allegory. Impressions and images that build the world around and within the characters are as fundamental to the story as the plot and the arc of the story. Getting it right takes a little work, but please, do make an effort to be subtle and deft in conveying it. As a reader, I’m always thrilled to read a novel where the subtext makes the narrative a voyage of discovery.

Credits and Attributions:

Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath by Dr. Linda Seger © published by Michael Wiese Productions; 2 edition (March 1, 2017) 


Filed under writing

34 responses to “Subtext #amwriting

  1. Reblogged this on Tidbits by Shannon and commented:
    In real life, we run into the same problem: people who babble endlessly tend to see glazed eyes and the backside of others. Does art imitate life? Or vice versa? Connie nails today’s lesson — read on!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Stephen Swartz

    Too often I’ve caught myself writing what the character feels and thinks (not direct thought). I trim back those spots and let the actions and dialog of that character reveal the “subtext” while relying on the conscious reader to interpret it correctly.
    And then there is verisimilitude.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. David P. Cantrell

    As you know, I take umbrage with excessive italics and want to suggest that they aren’t necessary for internal dialogue. The only important point is that the reader knows he or she is reading internal dialogue which doesn’t require a different font. The genre shouldn’t matter at all. The Chicago Manual of Style list specific uses for italics, including the emphasis of a thought or point, however, it cautions against overuse. Just as you have. Another good article.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As you know, I disagree with you in regard to accepted practices. I find it incredibly frustrating to be reading along and see what appears to be dialogue written without the quotation marks–it make the piece look unedited. You and I have this discussion every week and we never find common ground, lol! In my opinion, they must be set apart as internal rather than spoken, or I will put the book down and walk away from it out of sheer frustration. I can’t tell you how many books I have not finished because of this. I respect your opinion–I just disagree with it.


    • Stephen Swartz

      The umbrage is strong in this one. I use italics for foreign words, for emphasis of a word, and for internal thoughts which are not identified.
      In my latest, I employ italics for direct thought as well as non-italicized dialog which are thoughts (telepathy-like communication) where individual paragraphs separate who is thinking. I think it works quite well. We must adapt as serves the story!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post! I think subtext is something that new writers struggle a lot with because they know good writing has it, and they want to make sure they have it…so they go too far, as with a wall of italicized monologue. In my mind, subtext has always been reminiscent of body language in real life conversations. You can’t identify why you think that person is lying; you might not even have noticed a particular tic or word that clued you in, but you know. And in the same vein, you know when someone is embarrassed without them having to tell you. To me, subtext is like that. Show us the character’s actions and more often than not we’ll get the subtext.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I think of personal habits the same way. The trick (for me) is to individualize my characters with making them all sound the same, and to show the differing environments with variety when I am running short on creativity, which frequently happens in the first draft. To convey the characters, the core problem, and the world in an intriguing way and fit your ideas to the theme without overstating it is a large balancing act.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Another timely and useful post! Many thanks, Connie. 👍💯


  6. Reblogged this on Nesie's Place and commented:
    Writers, you’ll definitely want to check out this post AND save the link! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you for this. Subtext is critical to understanding character I”d like to recommend to your readers two books that go into this. first, The Art of Character by David Corbett (see chapters on wounds, ghosts and secrets)m, and Subtext, by Charles Baxter (pretty much this one’s intended for literary fiction folks).

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Ooh! I am always interested in new books, so I’ll check those out! Thank you, Scott!


  9. Reblogged this on deborahjay and commented:
    This is such a great post (thanks Connie) I decided the best way to bookmark it was to share it.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you for this post. Just what I need at the moment as I’m doing a re-write for the re-launch of my historical novel.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Unspoken thoughts and italics were a hot topic in my critique group recently, after which was compelled to write a post about it on my blog. I agree with you that italicizing some thoughts is the only way to go, but it should be limited. And discovering a well-crafted subtext in a book is something that can take it from good to extraordinary.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That does seem to be a ‘hot-button’ for some folks, me included! But it’s good to have these discussions with other authors. When I write down my own ideas about these concepts, it firms up and clarifies my view, making me more able to see the other viewpoint even if it doesn’t change my mind.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Your post helped me with this, which is great because my current WIP is in first person with a lot of unspoken thoughts. As I work through the rewrite, I’m going to make sure I use italics effectively.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Great article, given me a lot to think about.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. “Detail implies importance, so choose what you detail carefully.” YES!

    Liked by 1 person