5 Techniques for Adding Subtext to your Story


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Today we've invited Ollin Morales to clue us in about subtext--thank goodness, because while I know what it is, I've never understood how to add it to a story without confusing the readers and myself. Ollin's blog is a Top Ten Blogs for Writers winner, and, as I'm sure you'll agree once you've read his post, he knows his stuff. 

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About 90% of the time, we human beings don’t say what we mean to say. Instead, we speak in subtext. The beauty of subtext is that it makes human interaction fascinating; and, likewise, it’s what will make your story worth reading. If you, as a writer, can fundamentally understand the importance of subtext, I guarantee that you'll see the benefit in adding it to you story.
What Is Subtext? The best way to explain it is with an example:
Boy meets girl. 
Boy asks girl: "Do you like Coldplay?"
Boy smiles. Girl frowns.
Girl says: "No, they suck."
Boy asks: "Oh—what music do you like then?"
Boy walks towards girl. Girl steps back.
Girl blows a raspberry. 
Girl says: "I hate music."
Boy says: "Oh. So, you wouldn't be interested in going to a free concert?
Boy winks. 
Girl takes a moment to think about it. Then, Girl shakes her head. 
Boy shakes his head.
Boy says: "Okay, good-bye."
Boy leaves. 
Girl takes a huge sigh of relief.
Now, if you take a quick, superficial look at this scene, you might conclude that not much happened in it, right? WRONG. A WHOLE LOT happened. It’s just that it’s hard to catch because it all happened “in between the lines.” 

This is how the scene would read if there were NO SUBTEXT, and everyone in the scene was saying exactly what they meant to say:
Boy meets girl. 
Boy says: "I think you're cute. "
Boy smiles. Girl frowns.
Girl says: "Thanks."
Boy asks: "Are you single?"
Boy walks towards girl. Girl steps back.
Girl blows a raspberry. 
Girl says: "Yes. But I'm not interested in you."
Boy asks: "Can I be your sugar daddy at least?"
Boy winks. Girl takes a moment to think about it. Then, Girl shakes her head. 
Boy shakes his head.
Boy says: "Okay, but you're the one who’s missing out." 
Boy leaves. 
Girl takes a huge sigh of relief.
Now do you see what really went on in the scene? You probably also recognized an interaction that happens all the time, in real life. Just like in real life, your human characters will never say what they really mean. What they really mean to say will be conveyed through subtext: unspoken words hidden "in between the lines."

Now that we've learned what subtext is, here are 5 techniques you can use to add it to your story.
1. Give Your Character An Objective
We all have an objective, whether we realize it or not--“big picture” objectives (buying a house) and “small picture” objectives (going to the bathroom.) In the example above, we can see that the boy's objective was to land a date with the girl, while the girl's objective was to make it clear to the boy that she was not interested in him. Your characters should have something that drives them. The only thing that will drive them is an objective—a goal. Furthermore, having a goal will automatically add subtext to everything they say.
2. Give Your Character An Action
Now that the character has a goal, you have to give them the means by which they can achieve that goal. Try not having your character attempt to achieve his/her goal by deliberately asking for it. Instead, let them use their body language, or their tone of voice, to show what they  want. In the example I shared with you, the girl blows a raspberry at the boy to show the boy that she's not interested in him. Blowing a raspberry (although childish) is an action the girl is taking to achieve her objective (making it clear to the boy that she’s not interested in him). Her action also provides a clue to her subtext.
Giving your character an action will help the reader read between the lines of your story—and it will also reveal what the character really wants without you having to explain what the character really wants.
3. Make Your Characters Talk In Gibberish
It might sound strange, but when you replace all your character’s dialogue with gibberish, the subtext is revealed (or at least hinted at). For instance:
Boy meets girl. 
Boy asks: "Je janga pota blub?"
Boy smiles. Girl frowns.
Girl says: "Glooby."
Boy asks: "Jin go ploopa?"
Boy walks towards girl. Girl steps back.
Girl blows a raspberry.
Even though we have no idea what they’re saying, it’s pretty clear to us that this girl doesn’t like this boy. How do we know that, if all they did was talk in gibberish? SUBTEXT. If you replace your character’s dialogue with gibberish and it's impossible to know what’s going on, then it probably means you have to develop more subtext. On the other hand, if you did a great job of developing the subtext of the story, then your reader should have a general idea of what’s going on in the scene—even when the characters are talking nonsense.
4. Give Your Character A Secret
When you give a character a secret, it instantly makes them more interesting—and boy will there be subtext galore.
5. Give A Character A Secret About Another Character
What is more tantalizing than a character with a secret? A character who knows another character’s secret. When you put those two characters together in a room it makes for a very fascinating scene—chock full of delicious delicious subtext. Yum!
Good luck!
Hopefully, today, you learned something new: that human beings all talk in subtext and that if you want to create intriguing, believable characters, they'll have to talk in subtext, too. By utilizing these five techniques, you’ll not only vastly improve your ability to create subtext, but you’ll probably never look at human interactions the same way again.
Ollin Morales is a fiction writer,  freelance writer, blogger, and ghostwriter. His blog, Courage 2 Create, chronicles his journey as he writes his first fiction novel. His blog offers writing advice as well as strategies to deal with life’s tough challenges. His blog was named one of The Top Ten Blogs for Writers by WriteToDone two years in a row (2011, 2012).

25 comments:

Elaine Smith said...

I loved this post. Thank you. I never thought I'd be checking if my scenes work by turning the dialogue into gibberish but I'm going to have a lot of fun trying it out *grins

Gwynneth White said...

Just what I needed today with a challenge I'm having in my writing. Obviously sent by the angels. Thank you
Gwynneth

Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks Ollin for the great advice. Adding subtext makes the story so much more interesting because we the reader has to figure out what's really being said. Thanks for all the techniques to do it.

Fiona Ingram said...

Great post. I am busy editing my manuscript so this advice has come in handy!

Laurel Garver said...

The gibberish technique is fascinating. What a great way to test whether you have enough body language in scenes to help underscore the subtext. Love it.

Angela Ackerman said...

This is one of the clearest articles on subtext I've read--love the gibberish technique...that's a great way to ensure body language is being fed into the scene!

Thanks so much for hanging out with us, Ollin!

Angela

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

Replacing dialogue with gibberish is brilliant. Not only does it ensure the use of body language, but I imagine it helps the writer to create body language specific to each character, too.

Bish Denham said...

I agree with Cynthia! Using gibberish really helps to understand if subtext is working or not. Thanks, great info!

dayner said...

Great article. Can't wait to try the gibberish technique.

Laura Pauling said...

Awesome! I absolutely love secrets. When there are secrets in a story I always keep reading! Great post!

Rachna Chhabria said...

Very interesting post. It explained the subtext quite clearly.

Riv Re said...

Book. Marked. Thanks so much, this was really helpful!

~Riv Re
Riv Reads

Susanne Drazic said...

This was a great post. Thanks for the examples.

Traci Kenworth said...

Great lessons!!

ollinmorales said...

@ElaineSmith Yes! Gibberish works wonders!

@GwynethWhite Yay! I love when that happens. When right advice comes at the right time, you must have been asking for it?

@NatalieAguirre It's also just how human beings talk--and that's what makes us humans so fascinating. We never say what we mean to say--we really are one hot mess. Haha!

ollinmorales said...

@Fiona Ingram Yay! I'm glad it helped you.

@Laurel Garver It's even better when you read the dialogue out loud with a friend! It's so much fun and illuminating.

@Angela Ackerman Thank you so much! I'm flattered. You know I spent about 4 years studying subtext: I was a drama major with a focus on acting. And actors, well, that's all we do is subtext! So I know subtext very deeply.

ollinmorales said...

@Cynthia Chapman Willis @Bish Denham @Dayner - yes, I suggest trying to speak the dialogue out loud, and play it as if it was a scene with partner. See what body language you have to create to get your point across without saying it directly. Good luck!

@Laura Pauling Yummy! Secrets! The best stories all have great secrets. :)

@Rashna @Riv Re @Susanne @Traci - Thank you. I'm so glad it was clear and helpful to all of you.

Thanks Angela and Becca for having me on Bookshelf Muse! I feel so honored and your readers are so kind and wonderful! Thank you.

Tara Tyler said...

great advice and examples! love it!
and secrets always make great plot twists!

J.W. Alden said...

I recently had a battle with subtext in a story I'm shopping around. I had a scene with two characters, who used to be allies but have been pulled apart by circumstance. They have a dialog exchange in which Character A lets Character B know that he's now an enemy with a target on his back, all in a public place where B is in a position of authority and safe from hostility. So the surface dialog is actually B paying his respect to A in front of everyone, but the subtext is "Enjoy this comfort while you can--you messed up and we're coming for you."

It was a challenge, but great fun to write. I love scenes with heavy subtext, both as a reader and a writer. Great post!

J.W. Alden

Becca Puglisi said...

I love this post, Ollin. Like so many others, the gibberish technique is totally resonating with me. What a fabulous way to make sure your character's body language and actions are conveying the right message. Thanks so much for sharing your insight with us!

LTM said...

I LOVE me some subtext! And this is the best breakdown I've ever seen of how to do it well. I love that the Boy sounds a bit like Jar Jar Binks--LOL! :D

All that bit about the secrets is very good, too. And you're so right. What's more interesting that #4-5? Great post, thanks, A, B & Ollin! <3

Monica T. Rodriguez said...

This is terrific. I've always known subtext was an important element, but it's been much harder to hit the right note. This post makes it clear what I need to do. And the gibberish trick is brilliant! Thanks!

Owllady said...

This trait could overlap with Naivete to add something interesting, I think. I always prefer characters who exhibit more than one clear trait.

Julie Musil said...

Ollin, this was so great! I absolutely love the tip about plating gibberish to see if the subtext shines through. Thanks so much!

Valerie Strawmier said...

I love how you interact with your characters in this post and I can't wait to share this with my followers! Thanks for posting!

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