Subtext and how to create it


The magical ingredient: subtext

Subtext is what the characters say between the lines. The subtext is the emotion beneath the words, the truth beneath what is said and heard and the true essence of the scene. People act pleasant and polite when talking to you even when what they say is heart breaking.It is the thing they say without actually saying it. People are rarely so direct to say exactly what they think. They do not always say exactly what they mean. Subtext is sensitive to the interpretation of the audience and can sometimes be overlooked. This is a risk of the trade.

Subtext is part of every day social life, especially when emotions are involved. We go through life not saying how we really feel. This occurs regularly in any household with mini fights over who should do the dishes that evening (translate to, you don’t do your fair share of work around the house) or discussions about working late (translates to avoidance of the home, affair?). The characters are not being straight forward about what really bothers them.

The greater the contrast between the what’s said and the subtext, the more powerful the emotion it elicits. The audience derives joy from subtext because they get to participate in the moment. Subtext creates texture that links scenes to the themes and larger plot. It is the layer that contains unconscious information, clues to behaviour and elements of backstory. There are several techniques to achieve this.

How to create it

Symbols & Imagery

While plot refers to the events and information dropped into the narrative, theme is the overal message or larger idea. Thematic imagery are the images and symbols that bring forth the theme. Sometimes they pop up into your narration without being aware of putting them in there but conscious effort should be applied upon revision. The images you use can be small highlights in their larger scenes. Symbols are more abstract in their workings and give meaning without need for explanation.


Plant seeds of things still to come in every scene you write. This is a great way to announce plot development subtly. It helps round characters and elicits emotion. Innuendos can innocently flirt with a character or even accuse him of murder.

Intentional vs unintentional behaviour

All behaviours of characters are intentional from a writer’s point of view. You have chosen them deliberately after all. However they need not be intentional to the character. A character can have trouble managing his temper, caused by some trauma in his past. Perhaps the detective always takes the stairs while never openly admitting he is claustrophobic cause of the time his big brother locked him in the pantry under the stairs.

Leaving out speech

People rarely say exactly what they think. They edit before it reaches the ends of their tongues. Sometimes they may pick a particular word on purpose to hint at the truth without saying it. Subtext is what is being said without being spoken, the message you read between the lines.

Pressfield, S. (2016) Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit