What is subtext? Subtext is the non-verbal communication expressed through what Psychology Today called “a silent orchestra” which is a combination of facial expression, tone of voice, posture, and body language. Subtext can be subtle, nuanced with many layers of meaning that leave miles of room for misunderstanding. It can also be as blatant as a shout in a quiet room. Subtext is a more advanced writing technique, but it’s vital for writing in deep point of view (Deep POV).
Subtext includes hidden meanings and double ententes, conversations where this is about that, and also when communication happens through gestures and facial expressions.
A husband taps his watch at his chatty wife in a crowded party. Subtext.
A man stares at a woman across a crowded coffee shop. When she notices, she rolls her eyes and goes back to reading her book. Subtext.
What’s being spoken of on the surface might have nothing to do with what’s actually being discussed. Two coworkers have an argument, and the one in the wrong goes to the other as their shift ends trying to make amends.
Hey, let me buy you a coffee after work? (Sorry, can I make it up to you?)
The offended coworker understands what’s really being asked so they can respond to the surface question but answer the subtext at the same time.
- Sure. Let me grab my stuff. (All is forgiven.)
- Maybe later. I’m busy. (I’m still mad, but I’ll get over it.)
- Can’t. I have plans. (I’m still mad.)
How Does Power Affect Subtext?
At home, big sister is frequently put in a position of authority over her younger brother. At school, big sister is a bullied nerd and little brother is social elite. These two are not allies, they’re frenemies at best. This see-saw of power imbalance between school and home will influence the subtext between the siblings. There will be implied and blatant blackmail going on as each try to retain or gain power in each setting. Every slight in each setting will be interpreted through what they believe the other’s intent is, and that filter will influence their perception of what’s actually being said. Innocent comments may be interpreted as threats and honest efforts to reconcile may be seen as patronizing or ridicule.
Power or authority applies a filter to subtext, it affects how we perceive or interpret what we believe is actually being said.
In cases of sexual harassment and abuse, power imbalances are closely looked at, because the person in power doesn’t need to use force or physical threats in order to command compliance. The boss who could get a woman fired doesn’t have to threaten physical violence to coerce her into doing something she doesn’t want to. He might not even have to blatantly state what he wants from her. You see?
Questions To Ask Your Characters
When your character finds themselves trying to interpret subtext from someone in a position of power over them, consider:
- What’s at stake if they say no?
- Is saying no an option?
- What’s being withheld or withdrawn?
- Is the power imbalance personal, professional, social, economical (is the power imbalance limited to a particular situation or setting or is it over their whole life – do they have an escape)?
- Is this person a threat or a help?
- Is the perception of power true? A husband who believes his wife has one foot out the door thinks she has all the power. That wife might believe he doesn’t find her attractive, so in her perception he has all the power. They’ve both abdicated their power because of shame. Oooh – what a tangled web we weave.
The Power of Touch
Touch is an expression of authority and power, and relationship. We choose who we allow close enough to touch us. There are some benign touches that are socially acceptable: a handshake, a kiss on the cheek in greeting, an inadvertent brush as you pass another, being squeezed in a crowded space (like an elevator), etc. Touch can imply possession.
A touch that’s not wanted is seen (typically) as a threat or at least an invasion and the threat of an unwanted touch can be just as intimidating. An abusive husband who is drunk raises his hand — he doesn’t have to actually hit to exercise his power over his wife and children.
Power imbalances don’t only apply in situations where something nefarious is going on.
This is an example from a work in progress. Kaduis is next in line to the throne and Arun is a concubine – not even a wife. There’s a disparate power imbalance here. Arun can’t oppose Kaduis (her well-being depends on his favor) or make any demands of him overtly, but he does care for her so there’s leverage. They are discussing the fact that their infant daughter doesn’t have a name yet.
Arun touched the gold earrings he’d given her the day their daughter was born and captured his gaze with her own. “She needs a name.”
He cupped Arun’s cheek in his palm. “Then give her one. She is old enough.”
Arun lowered her gaze and turned her face away from his touch.
Kaduis straightened and sighed. “I cannot. At least not publicly.”
Do you get a sense of the power struggle here communicated through touch or the rejection of it? The power imbalance has forced Arun to instead rely on implied guilt (touching the earrings Kaduis had given her at the child’s birth, where he’d promised to always take care of them) to provoke him to publicly claim the child as his.
His touch is more about dominance than affection and she rejects that authority by rejecting his touch. His reaction to the rejection tells us much about who he is and how he treats women. Another man might have asserted his dominance, dismissed or ridiculed Arun. Instead, Kaduis cuts to the chase and answers her subtext. So much can be implied with eye contact and touch, the withdrawal of it, and whether it’s wanted or not.
Can you think of a favorite scene from a book or movie where the subtext was influenced by the imbalance of power? Share it in the comments below. Let’s create a list of reference material to get a better idea of the different ways this can play out.
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