Once I realized what subtext was and the different ways I could use it effectively, it became a go-to tool for deep point of view. I had a reader ask: Can subtext replace dialogue and how would that look?
Subtext is silent communication. It’s the body language (posture, facial expressions, gestures), tone of voice — all the ways we send signals and communicate without using words. Subtext can add a layer of realism and authenticity to our stories and is a necessary technique when using deep point of view.
Subtext Is Often Added In Rewrites
It’s hard to effectively use subtext in a first draft. In order to use subtext, you have to really know your characters. If I can’t get subtext to work for me, it’s usually because I don’t know the characters involved well enough.
Subtext is art more than mechanics. It’s the polish to the story so to speak. Once I really understand the story arc, the emotional arc of each POVC and the goal of each scene, then I go back and tighten things up for the subtext. In a first draft, I’m more likely to just write what the character’s thinking. Subtext is about what isn’t said, right. So the rewrites is where you can objectively study a scene and decide if using subtext would add authenticity or tension for readers.
Leave Them Hanging
One trick that’s effective with subtext is to take a question and answer exchange in a scene and cut one or the other. Have a character ask a question and then cut the answer — use facial expressions or body language (subtext) to answer. Or, cut the question (use subtext) and let the character answer what they think the question was. Yes, they might get it wrong. We get it wrong all the time in real life. Let that add tension, conflict, and complexity to your story.
Done strategically, this is very effective at showing relationship, familiarity, or a shared history/goals.
Here’s an example from the WIP I have out with beta readers right now.
She picked up the first stone between her hands. She turned it over in her hands and stared at Ulrik. Would make a sizable dent in a man’s head.
“Get to it, Felora.” He rested his hand on the handle of his sword. Easy way or hard way?
Were her expressions so transparent? She needed to work on that.
One of my all-time favorite movies is Dirty Dancing. There’s this scene between Johnny and Baby where they have this really personal, vulnerable conversation and it gets awkward, he’s annoyed. She asks him to dance.
The entire dance is subtext. It’s question and answer over and over as the intimacy escalates. I don’t use many romance examples, but I couldn’t resist here.
Facial Expression Gold
Watch the people around you, particularly people you’re close with, and see how they use their facial expressions to communicate. Here’s an example:
Sarah waited to Bobby to open the trunk and then set her bags of groceries in the car. She wiped her forehead with the back of her wrist and glared at the searing sun overhead.
Bobby shut the trunk. They both turned to get into the car when an elderly woman hobbled past trying to wrangle three overflowing shopping bags, a walking cane, and her purse.
Sarah glanced at Bobby but he hadn’t noticed the old woman’s plight. Sarah tipped her head to the side.
Bobby’s eyes narrowed. She repeated the gesture and he finally looked at the old woman for a moment. He shrugged and opened his car door.
Sarah cleared her throat. Bobby looked over the roof of the car at her. Sarah tipped her head towards the old woman again and owled her eyes. Do something.
He straightened and his brows shot up. What did she want him to do?
She slammed her hand on the top of the car. His jaw tensed, but he shut his car door and approached the old woman to see if he could help.
We all have a variety of go-to expressions to communicate questions and answers.
Something That Can’t Be Said
Do you have a scene where two characters are talking, but they can’t mention what they’re talking about? Or maybe they don’t want to acknowledge what they’re really talking about? Sometimes we all seek a little bit of deniability, right.
Maybe this is a long-standing argument — who’s going to take out the trash this week. Maybe there are others present who don’t/can’t know what’s really being talked about? Mom and Dad arranging a little one on one time with little ears still in the room for instance.
In these situations, subtext can be the whole other conversation happening that’s unrelated to what’s actually being said. These are fun to write because they’re challenging and rewarding when you can pull it off.
I love this scene from Captain America: The First Avenger. Steve Roger’s plane is going down, it’s a suicide mission and he contacts Peggy one last time to say goodbye. But instead they talk about rescheduling a dance at the Stork Club. It’s heartbreaking to watch.
Backstory Kills Subtext
Backstory serves you, the writer, better than the reader often. Remember, backstory answers one question and leaves the reader with two more. It gets dripped into the story. Save the backstory drips for exposition or internal dialogue. Keep the backstory out of your subtext.
When subtext is being used in place of dialogue, keep it snappy and the pace moving. Keep the internal dialogue to a minimum if you can. If the dialogue is more of a mix between spoken dialogue and subtext, you’ll need the internal dialogue for readers to follow along.
Do you think you’ll use subtext in place of dialogue? Where in your current WIP would this add a deeper layer of meaning or authenticity for readers?