Everyone has seen subtext. It’s what creates tension in otherwise innocent exchanges, lends nuance to dialogue, and adds complication to fiction. Subtext is the reason why we all know that our favorite pairing is meant to be together, even if they will never be cannon.
Subtext is one of the things that makes fiction excellent. And if you want to create the sort of stories that people write smutty fanfiction about, (or, you know, a literary masterpiece, although the two are not exclusive), subtext is your best friend.
What exactly is subtext?
Subtext happens when there is more to the story than the words on the page, but this extra layer of nuance is never explicitly unpacked by the writer. It is literally what is going on beneath the text of the story.
Take for example, the ever-present homoerotic subtext: two characters of the same gender are constantly whispering to one another, obsessing over the other’s actions, exchanging glances, etc. None of these actions are inherently romantic and it is rare for either character to come out as queer, but if you read into the text you could definitely argue that they’re flirting with each other.
Of course, if they do enter a relationship, this stops being subtext and becomes plain old text.
If you’re looking for the quick and dirty way to make subtext, there are two features that you need to focus on: indirectness and incongruence.
Indirectness means that your characters do not confront their feelings head on. Subtext is often about tensions beneath the surface bubbling up. If everyone is completely straightforwards with each other, you lose this because all the conflict is already at the top layer of the story.
Allow your characters to bottle up their feelings and to keep secrets from each other, while cutting down on the emotional outbursts. Shouting matches and grand declarations of love are cathartic because they let out tension. Denying emotive displays builds tension and provides you for an opportunity to hint at how the characters actually feel more subtly. This has the added bonus of cutting out on-the-nose dialogue in which characters state things that we all knew.
Indirectness also means remembering that real people have complicated relationships that they don’t discuss, but that still inform their interactions. If, for example, an old crush asks for help with the math homework 95% of people aren’t going to say, “This is kind of weird because I used to like you but don’t anymore.” But most people are going to act weird, be it through evasiveness, excessive interest, or a conscious effort to not care. It feels strange and unnatural when characters constantly declare their intentions. (Don’t believe me? Read a few pages of Twilight. The unending stream of declarations is part of what makes Edward and Bella’s relationship so difficult to swallow.) However, if you show the dynamic between two characters, you can invite readers to speculate about the nature of the relationship or imply that something’s up more organically.
Incongruence means that there are details that are intentionally out of alignment with each other to hint that there’s more going on than meets the eye. Hint that something is out of the ordinary, and leave it to the reader to puzzle out what.
One way of achieving this is to pay attention to how dialogue meshes with action. If these things contradict each other, it clues in the reader that something is amiss. What happens if Alice always goes out of her way to be courteous to Bob, but also maintains a stiff posture and coolly declines to help him whenever he asks for a favor? Or what if she grouses about how annoying he is, but peppers her complaints astute observations and knows his coffee order down to the number of sugar packets?
Incongruence can also be set up by paying attention to the setting. Characters interact with and alter the setting, the same way that people tend to alter any space that they inhabit for a long time. As such, unexpected or telling things can be placed in the background. A place that’s supposed to see a lot of foot traffic might be strangely pristine, or a divorcee might still have pictures of his ex-husband around the house. Readers will notice when things are out of place. The key is setting up these details and then letting them sit.
Isn’t that like withholding?
Yes and no. Yes, because you aren’t putting all of your cards on the table. No, because the details that you’re keeping back are things that you expect the reader to fill in for themselves, and that, if done correctly, won’t leave holes in the top layer of the narrative if we fail to put all the clues together. Also, when you set up a driving question, nine times out of ten you are expected to provide some sort of answer. Anyone who thinks that subtext must always be hashed out and resolved has never been the victim of queerbaiting. (Protip: homoerotic subtext is awesome, but there’s a fine line. Queerbaiting is just mean).
Writing like a boss: Have faith in your readers. One of the most common problems that writers run across is that they aren’t confident in their reader’s ability to pick up on the finer points of the story, so they unpack well-executed subtext. This removes the nuance from the story. Don’t be afraid to make the reader do a bit of work.