If Theme is the hidden meaning behind the literal meaning in our writing, then Subtext is the literary device we use to bring it out. In my flash, Buttons, there’s subtext in this scene between my protagonist and his love interest:
He cleared his throat and recited a Karenyan folk poem which he then translated for her. It was about a bluebird that flew high enough to see that the world was larger than it expected, but not as terrifying as other bluebirds made it out to be.
“Is that true?” she asked, smiling a little.
“Well,” he said, trying to convey the message of his heart in a foreign tongue, “the world very large, and some places not so safe...” He looked down at her, determined to remember this moment, locking this memory into his heart. “But birds who go in pairs...they safer than most.”
See how he’s using the poem to tell her something without actually saying it? Literal meaning – birds in pairs are safer together. Hidden meaning – you will be safe with me/let us be a pair.
People use subtext when they talk, especially when they flirt---that’s INTENDED SUBTEXT. But when we write, UNINTENDED SUBTEXT can creep into our writing. This can be good or not, depending on how you want your story (and you as a writer) to come across.
I’ve had people get upset at me for pointing out subtext in their stories. They feel offended, as if it’s insensitive or intrusive of me, or they feel silly for not spotting it themselves. But subtext is meant to be subtle, so subtle the writer often misses it. If it’s glaringly obvious, the writer’s being heavy-handed, maybe even preachy, and nobody wants that.
There’s no need to think about subtext during the early drafts. A lot of the time, subtext is placed there by our subconscious. The writer does not need to be aware of it while they’re writing. It’s only later, at the editing stage, that we discover the subtext. That’s when we make the decision to bring it out, to shine a light on it (if it’s good and appropriate for the story) or not.
Me: Can you tell us how subtext relates to the theme of a story?
Daiva: Subtext helps to dress up the theme. The writer uses it to make their theme sound nice. There are truths that we want to relate but no-one wants to hear truths. So let's dress them up beautifully. Concisely.
Me: Ah, yes. Instead of bluntly. My protag doesn’t want to scare off his love interest by making some intense declaration. He’s not certain how she would respond, so he tells her a little story instead. Basically, he dresses up his intentions in that little blameless poem.
D: Theme is what we want to tell, subtext how we do it.
Me: Oh, I love that! A very good way to think about the relationship between theme and subtext. There’s a lot of uncertainty about the two. Most writers are so focused on the literal story that theme and subtext are often just afterthoughts. But I can see how my subconscious sprinkles subtext here and there, passages that relate to the theme, not directly but obliquely, tangentially.
D: Subtext should answer readers’ expectations.
Me: Meaning it would differ according to genre/subgenre. True. So, how subtle should we be with intended subtext?
D: It is like a key we provide the reader to unlock our message. This key should be something a reader can recognize. Otherwise, the reader won't see the message.
Me: Right, so, not too subtle then. *shifty-eyed* I often put down things that my readers don’t ‘get’. That’s wasted, too subtle. But we also don’t want to come across as heavy-handed. Probably best to leave it to our subconscious. Let our critique partners and editors tell us if it works, eh? Thanks, D, again, for your insights!