|This topic sheet was originally
devised for the Exciting
Plot Writing course. There is a table of links
to other teaching resources towards the bottom of this page.
Subtext is literally the text below the surface:
not seen, but sensed. In analytical terms, subtext corresponds
approximately with the set of conclusions we draw from the facts
presented. Just as any two people may draw different conclusions
from the same set of facts, every reader of the same plot may
perceive their own, unique, subtext.
The mental processes involved in the creation of
subtext are principally concerned with the reader's instinctive
efforts to create fully fledged, "three dimensional"
images from tightly compressed information such as words. The
words and phrases trigger memories in our minds, throwing up sights,
sounds, smells and other sensations in the virtual reality of
For all their richness of meaning, words can never
convey the full picture, so it is inevitable that there will be
gaps. The picture that arises in our mind's eye may be imagined
as a filigree of meanings taken directly from the text, through
whose holes we see the background consisting of our memories,
which form the subtext.
The subjective nature of subtext obviously means
that the writer has limited control over it, but this is not at
all to say that the writer has no control. Consider again the
camera metaphor (adopted in our previous exploration of setting
plot boundaries), which also provides some inspirational imagery
for thinking about subtext.
As the camera's field of view narrows, elements
of plot vanish from the viewfinder, though not necessarily from
the action. A photograph of an infant smiling broadly at someone
or something above the photographer's head raises questions of
what that someone or something is and how she, he or it relates
to the child. We might guess that it is the child's mother, but
equally it might be a clown or a favourite plaything.
Just as there is subtext in terms of the elements
of plot beyond the edges of the picture, there is also subtext
to be seen by imagining our way inside and behind the images actually
shown in the picture.
The mind of the infant in the photograph is inscrutable,
but we may find ourselves trying to look inside it by mapping
our memories of subtle facial expressions, our memories of other
people whom we imagine to resemble the infant in some way and
our experience of the world around us. That smile might be one
of recognition, but it might be a symptom of some mental dysfunction,
or it might just be wind.
Subtext, then, is the sum of the parts of the plot
that are never explicitly stated, but are nevertheless crucial
to the reader's/listener's interpretation, understanding and,
ultimately, enjoyment, of the plot.
Accordingly, writers ignore the issue of subtext
at their peril. Readers are unlikely to keep reading unless they
have a mystery to solve. On one level, a well constructed plot
provides the mystery and the solution. But subtext, by directing
the attention towards something entirely outside the plot, creates
an additional dimension of mystery that is far more intriguing:
the mystery is never fully solved; the reader is left puzzling
The key question for the writer seeking to develop
sub-text is "How do I get across the idea that ... without
actually saying it?"
In the context of plot development, a useful starting
point may be to focus one's attention on a critical, even dominant
event that is set outside the action, but has a major bearing
upon the action.
Like the smiling infant in the photograph, all the
characters of the story are aware of the event, but they never
speak directly about it: only the writer knows the secret of the
subtext. In fact the writer cannot betray the secret, or else
it ceases to be subtext and becomes part of the story.
The truly inspirational secret is a multi-faceted
one that throws piercing light on every character and event in
the plot without ever emerging from its inscrutable veil.