Using Subtext: a Writer’s Magic Trick

Editor Teresa Crumpton is not a magician, but her insights and suggestion for punching up our writing with subtext could make us feel like we just pulled a rabbit out of a hat.

“I know it when I see it, but—”

Subtext can be hard to define, but it’s worth the effort. For the purposes of this short article, let’s think of subtext as the part of a scene the intelligent reader brings to the story. Of course the expertise of the clever-and-confident author sparks the reader’s contribution. Characters often use subtext when blurting out the plain truth would be painful or embarrassing. Writers often use subtext to add humor or to keep the reader involved.

Here’s my fallback example for teaching what subtext is. It comes in before-and-after flavors.

Brief Exchange Before Subtext—28 words

yawnJohn looks up from his laptop. “Are you going to the store this morning?”

“Yes,” Mary says.

“What are you going to buy?” John asks.

“Coffee,” Mary says.

Note: this couple is going to need more than coffee to keep the reader awake enough to turn the page.

Brief Exchange After Subtext—42 Words

John looks up from his laptop. “Are you going to the store this morning?”

Mary nods, grips the edge of the table, leans in toward John and whispers, “If I don’t get a cup of coffee soon, I’m going to kill somebody.”

What It’s Good For

I like subtext for two main improvements it brings to my writing: Subtext can pick up the pace of the story, and it makes a story more psychologically satisfying.

Consider the “Before” example above; it’s only twenty-eight words, but feels like the characters are just droning on. Really, who cares if Mary ever musters enough oomph to go anywhere? The “After” example—at 42 words long—is no high art, but at least one of the characters is breathing. She wants something. In my quest for morning coffee, I’ve always managed to stop this side of murder, but I understand Mary’s feelings. This version is longer, but moves faster. Better pace.

The subtext in the “After” example requires the reader to supply the missing information, and that partnership makes the reading more psychologically satisfying. Savvy reader knows what it means when a person grabs the table a leans into your personal space. Reader understands John may have just been tossing out polite conversation to hide the fact he was deep-diving on his laptop at the breakfast table again—Where ya going? What ya going to buy? But Mary is fully present. And she wants coffee. Using this technique, the author involved the reader, added action, emotion and tension and picked up the pace of the exchange. And all this was accomplished in a low-interest business-as-usual part of the scene. [It’s easy to pick up the pace if Mary goes for the ax. That’s a whole different blog.]

Techniques and Examples

The technique used in the example above is: Skip to the Final Answer.

Character A asks a question [and we all know where this question is headed], so Character B skips that question and all the interim questions and delivers the meat of the issue with energy.

Similarly, Skip to the Final Answer without questions is called Insinuation, and used wisely, it can pack an emotional wallop. Remember the 1997 movie Air Force One (written by Andrew W. Marlowe and directed and co-produced by Wolfgang Petersen)? At the end, when everyone is waiting to hear if the President has been rescued, the announcement arrives in subtext: “We’re changing our call letters to Air Force One!” Instantly the readers/viewers translate this and have the double joy of knowing the president is safe and being involved in figuring out the meaning. The subtext draws the reader into the story world.

The next example is from a movie His Girl Friday (1940 directed by Howard Hawks, adaptation by Charles Lederer, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.) Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell play a formerly married couple, still sparring. The first of these is an example of Insinuation and the Comeback. Basically the first character insinuates something, and the second character refuses to accept it. She answers his meaning, not his explicit words. That’s what makes it subtext.

He says: “Where’d you get that hat?”

She grinned and shoved the hat to the back of her head. “I paid twelve dollars for that hat.”

A valuable, but underused (IMHO) subtext technique is the Action-Only Response. Character A asks Character B a direct question. Rather than answer Character A, Character B takes an immediate action that indirectly supplies the answer. For example, in the 1976 movie Network (written by Paddy Chayefsky, directed by Sidney Lumet), Max asks Diana out to dinner, but she doesn’t answer him verbally.

Max: …what’re you doing for dinner tonight?
DIANA pauses in the doorway, and then moves back briskly to the desk, picks up the telephone receiver, taps out a telephone number, waits for a moment –
DIANA (not to Max, but on the phone): I can’t make it tonight, luv, call me tomorrow.

While there are a lot of subtext techniques, I’m going to mention just one more here. This is one my youngest son originally taught me, and it always adds a spark of light humor. It’s Small Word Replacement. CBS’s NCIS forensic scientist Abby refers to drinking straws as something like hollow polypropylene cylindrical tubes.

Another example comes from a 1947 Nero Wolfe novel Too Many Women by Rex Stout. Private detective Archie Goodwin is describing Rosa Bendini. He says that in Italy they’d probably nickname her something like Rosebud, but he thought it more appropriate to call her “a line is the shortest distance between two points, but you can’t prove it by me.” In the current century, authors tend to restrain themselves to shorter phrases, but Archie gives us a good clear example.

The Gauntlet Is Down

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to read through some of the quieter pages of your current manuscript. See if you can change the pacing or add a wisp of humor by replacing some spelled-out discussion with subtext.

An Invitation

How have you used subtext in your work? Please post an example of how you’ve used subtext in your work and include the title.

 

Teresa HeadshotTeresa Crumpton is an independent editor and writing coach from Michigan. Visit Teresa’s website  at

http://www.writing-excellence.com/

 

 

 

12 thoughts on “Using Subtext: a Writer’s Magic Trick

  1. Elizabeth Meyette says:

    Teresa, I love this post! I think I use two of the above-mentioned strategies in this scene :
    “License and registration, please!” The deep voice boomed through the rain.
    She kept her hands on the steering wheel.
    “License and registration, please!”
    She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel as the police officer leaned toward her, his forearm against the top of the window frame.
    “I could arrest you, you know.” Officer Marty D’Amato’s threat rumbled like the distant thunder.
    Jesse held her hands out of the window, wrists together. “Cuff me, officer.”
    “Geez, Jesse. Why are you speeding like a bat out of hell in this downpour?” Rain pelted the hood of his poncho.
    With her thumb, Jesse indicated the backseat. She watched as her friend’s deep brown eyes bugged out at the sight of the “body.”

  2. Lynn Wilcox says:

    I really love all of the great examples you use to illustrate your points! These are excellent teaching tools! I can’t wait to attend one of your workshops!

  3. “Body” is an awesome comeback in most any situation! Dialog or narrative–it’s powerful. I love the no-verbal response in the first part, too. Nice job of using silence. Ain’t this fun?

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