Subtext in Writing Fiction

subtextSubtext in dialogue give readers a glimpse into the characters’ underlying feelings. The words they say may mean the opposite of how they feel or how they act. Subtext is the truth which sometimes the characters don’t realize and sometimes they do but they keep it hidden. Readers need to sense the truth from the subtext. If writers tell all in dialogue, with one character complaining enough to reveal everything she or he fears or plans, there’s no secret for the reader to discover later. Real life people hide their flaws and fears and so do characters.

Through subtext writers give hints to the reader that adds to the enjoyment of the story. We want the reader to wonder what is going on underneath the characters’  words and actions, to sense something isn’t right, to suspect he or she means the opposite. However, the readers need to trust that whatever it is will be revealed later while they have fun guessing along the way. It’s the writer’s job to use subtext without frustrating the reader and to follow through with the thread of the underlying meaning. Subtext can be shown with body language, gestures, tone of voice, facial expressions, actions and reactions. Metaphors can contribute to subtext. Readers often understand the subtext unfolding since they can relate to the character’s feelings. Real life experiences broaden the ability to read between the lines.

Have you used subtext in your work in progress? Or, have you recognized it in the story you’re reading or the movie you watched?


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For over twenty-five years, I've taught elementary grades, high school, and county special education classes. Now I am a field supervisor for teachers working toward their teaching credentials. I also teach writing classes in Dublin and Pleasanton, California. I have won 5 awards in short story contests, My stories are published in The California Writers Club Literary Review, and several anthologies including four times in Las Positas College collections. I have several book projects, but the two that have my immediate attention are HADA'S FOG, which is women's fiction, LILLI, a YA novel, and NORMAN IN THE PICTURE, a paranormal mystery. I have published an anthology WRITTEN ACROSS THE GENRES that includes writings from members of my writing classes and other writers. It's available on Amazon and Kindle.

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