Subtext is a slippery thing, a frequently misunderstood thing. Good writing will have it – but what is it, what does it mean, and when should we use it?
According to the OED subtext is an underlying theme in a speech or a piece of writing. That should cover it, right? Well, not really. As writers we need to dig a little deeper than that – we are the makers of language, the maestros of subtext; we are the reason people reach for their dictionaries to understand what the hell we're on about. We can't just bluff it.
So let's try another definition – subtext is the difference between what is being said and what is actually happening, the gap between what is said and left unsaid.
There are many reasons why people don't say what they mean – perhaps they don't know; perhaps they know but can't express it; perhaps they know but are afraid of the reaction they will get if they tell. This provides a very compelling reason to use subtext – it's realistic. This is what real people do and characters who do it too will generate empathic responses in readers.
Subtext also creates drama. It's the difference between what a character wants and what they need. If the reader or audience can see what the character needs (as opposed to what they say they want) this will create narrative interest – will that character get what they want or what they need, or both, or neither?
But for subtext to work, the reader or audience need to know what's going on for the character even though the character doesn't know herself. Go back and read that again – the reader needs to understand the subtext, even if the character doesn't. Tough right?
Nobody said this was easy.
If the reader can't understand your subtext, then your characters will just be behaving weirdly, they will seem erratic and unmotivated. And while we're on the subject, subtextual motivation can drive a character in ways that surprise even themselves - but don't confuse it with motivation. Someone breaks into the protagonist's house and kidnaps her children then she is going to be motivated to get those kids back. That's pure motivation - the character knows it, we know it, everyone knows it - no subtext whatsoever. So while motivation can be subtextual, subtext is not motivation.
This is the reason why not all scenes need subtext, if a character's action is well motivated that will be enough to drive a convincing scene – but it's also the reason why we see so many atrocious scenes that don't work at all, because the writer is labouring under the belief that subtext is motivation. Combine this with a subtext that isn't understood by the audience and the result is a vague scene with characters behaving in an apparently unmotivated way. No deal.
So how the hell do we get it right?
Well, it all comes down to your characters. You have to know them better than they know themselves. If you fully understand your characters – their hang-ups, fears and hopes – then there is every chance you won't have to pay subtext a second thought. It will just happen appropriately and convincingly. Your characters will act and speak in a way that demonstrates their subtextual needs juxtaposed against their stated ones creating realism and drama in equal measure.
But more often than not what you'll really end up with is a half-baked character behaving weirdly in vague and unconvincing ways. If, like me, this is where you most often end up, then forget subtext for the time being. Concentrate on first motivating your character and then getting to know them. Don't worry about putting subtextual depth to scenes at first – just get your characters behaving in a convincing way and crack on with the draft. Hopefully by the end of it you'll know your characters well enough to go and rewrite those scenes with more subtextual depth.
Apply subtext with subtlety and always drive it by character. Some characters can express how they feel but don't know why they feel it. Some characters over-analyse their feelings to the point where they are incapable of expressing it. Or you may have a character who is just very well adjusted – don't be afraid of this either. Not every character has to have a whole bag of hang-ups – if this was the case nobody would ever get a straight answer out of anybody.
And ultimately the writers job is to eventually close the gap between the text and the subtext , to get a character to a point of realisation, to get them to say what they mean, to tell the girl of their dreams that they love them more than anything, to get their just desserts.
Because that, folks, is storytelling.