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That elusive thing: subtext, Sophie Duffy

For this blog I want to talk about that elusive thing: subtext.

Subtext is the magic ingredient that can add layers and depth to any piece of writing. It can make your story, flash, or poem rise like a fluffy fairy cake. Without it, your story, flash, or poem, might just remain flat, with or without a soggy bottom. (Yes, that is a really bad metaphor but imagery and symbolism have their part to play in subtext, to which I will return.)

As writers we must never forget the importance of story and narrative. We must have a plot that intrigues and delivers. We need conflict and obstacles and resolution. And we must create memorable characters who the reader will care about. But how do you develop all these elements in a short story of 2000 words, a piece of flash in 250 words or in a poem of 20 lines?

Yes. You got it. Subtext.

Subtext is what lies beneath the cover story. It is the undercurrent that lurks beneath the surface. It is ‘off the page’ rather than ‘on the nose’. It is showing not telling. It is implication, hinting at what you want to say, rather than stating the bleeding obvious.

In a short piece, or indeed even in a novel, you cannot describe everything, nor should you as that would be beyond boring. And there’s certainly no time or space for backstory. One of the most important choices you make as a writer is what to include and what to leave out. Writing must contain gaps and silences. When the reader fills these gaps and silences, the text will fully come alive. Make the reader work a little.

But how?

All sorts of ways.

  • One of the most obvious ways to use subtext is through dialogue. Your characters can say one thing but mean something else entirely, leaving the reader to work out their unspoken thoughts and motives. Taking an example from film, think of Woody Allen’s ‘Annie Hall’. There is a scene on a rooftop where the two main characters are discussing her photography. There are subtitles showing what the characters are thinking which is so different to what they are saying. But even without subtitles we could work out the hidden meaning through their flirtatious, coy body language.
  • Setting is another way. You can use the atmosphere of the landscape, the weather etc. to set the mood or tone of the piece. This can reflect the emotion of the writing and enhance what you want to say. Jane Austen does this brilliantly in ‘Emma’.
  • Which moves us to emotion. Emotion is what is so often lacking in competition entries. Subtext does wonders for this, by adding depth to your characters so that we really feel what they are feeling. Think of the scene at the end of ‘Brief Encounter’ when the two lovers have to say goodbye forever in a busy station café, only to be interrupted by an acquaintance, a chatterbox completely oblivious to their pain, but we feel that pain all the more keenly. This scene would not have had the same emotional impact if they had spoken in words how they were feeling – it would’ve run the risk of sounding trite or corny.
  • Subtext is brilliant at creating conflict and suspense. If we know or suspect a character has a hidden agenda, then subtext will heighten the tension. It can create menace and threat.
  • Subtext is key if you use an unreliable/naïve narrator. It tells the reader things that the narrator or characters don’t know.
  • Sex. Subtext used to be used for sex scenes when they would not have otherwise been published due to censorship laws and societal attitudes. But subtext is still useful in sex scenes. There are only so many ways you can have sex but it is good to know the atmosphere, emotions, tension etc., bubbling away under the surface. It can also be used to inject humour.
  • One of the ways you might already be handling subtext without realising it, is through your use of metaphor and symbolism, where an image or object represents something far greater than the subject itself. This is obviously perfect for poetry and flash. One of my favourite contemporary poets is Hilda Sheehan who excels at this in a really fresh way.

I asked two of my fellow colleagues from CreativeWritingMatters what they think about subtext.

‘A story that’s meant to be funny doesn’t need to have actual jokes in it provided the writing itself is witty and wry. A story that’s meant to move the reader emotionally shouldn’t feature flippant observations or authorial intrusions. Subtext needs to make a connection with the reader’s subconscious in the way good poetry does. We feel it as well as read it or hear it.’ Margaret James.

‘It’s also about implication rather than stating. This flash story in the Creative Writing Student’s Handbook is my example (see below). It’s obvious to the reader what’s going on, but it isn’t on the page. I never say, Linda didn’t want to invite the neighbours round, but it becomes apparent that’s the case. She knows she should, but finds reasons not to.’ Cathie Hartigan.

Here’s the flash piece written by Cathie.

Weak or strong

Every morning Linda drank tea from a cup and saucer, the last of her grandmother’s favourite set. How maddening then, to break the cup. She haunted charity shops.
When new people moved in next door they invited her in and lo, their dresser bore a single cup bearing the same rosy pattern.
‘Oh!’ said Linda, ‘I have the saucer.’
‘Do you?’ replied her neighbour. ‘That’s wonderful! I’ve been searching for one for ages.’
Linda did not reply.
At home, she gave the saucer on her own dresser a hard stare. A return invitation would have to be issued soon.
But weeks went by. Their television clapped and chatted through the wall and shopping deliveries came from a supermarket Linda never frequented. What a relief she hadn’t invited them back. Clearly they weren’t her cup of tea at all.

Make sure you have your subtext at the ready!

Sophie Duffy is this year’s Hysteria Writer in Residence. You can find out more about her in the interview she did with us in April.

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