The Magic of Subtext

Everyone says it. Over and over.

Sure, there are exceptions. But it is generally a good tip, even if overused.

Show, don’t tell.

But how do we actually do this?

One word: subtext.

Subtext is the lifeblood of ‘show, don’t tell.’ Honestly, subtext is the lifeblood of prose in general.

Subtext: the art of understating—causing readers to feel or know a fact without mentioning it.

I weave subtext into many areas of prose, but today we’re going to cover three main areas.

Descriptions

Every story contains descriptions, but portraying a setting is merely one function. Descriptions also set the mood of your character, his voice, and even his personality in general. For instance:

It was gone again, vanishing as they pounded down the last hill. Gnarled shadows pooled around the roots of the forest and dark phantoms shuddered in a cool breeze.

You get the impression of a looming forest, but you also sense the character’s apprehension through how he views it. I haven’t said he’s reluctant to enter the forest, but the metaphor of “shuddering phantoms” reveals his inward emotions.

Using descriptions just to illustrate a setting is a wasted opportunity. Show how a character perceives the setting. This keeps readers attuned to his emotions and the drift of his mind before they even hear his thoughts or observe his body language.

Body Language

Body language ties in with subtext and the character’s surroundings. As a general rule don’t employ words like happy, sad, confused, or nervous in regards to your main character. Instead, insert subtext.

The corridors were empty, but each step wound the sickening ache tighter and tighter in his stomach. He clenched his hands to keep them from trembling. One firm, long stride, then the next and the next; that’s all he needed to focus on. The passages were narrower now, some glistening as if they’d been freshly cleaned. Another door. A sharp turn, then a narrow, low passage curving out of sight like the thick coil of a serpent.

“We’re inside the wall,” Ard said. “You’ll exit above the gate.” The words echoed in meaningless thrums, like a dried bone dragged across the ribs of a monster’s skeleton.

This couples description with body language. The words afraid or nervous never appear, but you know the character is tense. Body language can help depict the people near your viewpoint character as well.

Keros started forward, but Ethaniel caught his arm. The half-Volandum’s shoulders were hard as carved wood, trembling with fury.

“Don’t,” Ethaniel choked. “It’s not worth it.” He met Bryce’s fevered glare across the room with one of his own. “I’ll run it. Captain. I daresay even a Yathome is better than a man half dead with fever.”

By witnessing each character’s actions, you can detect the anger and disdain from Bryce, the defensiveness from Keros, and the simmering determination in Ethaniel.

A note of caution. Body language is amazing, but don’t over-use it. Normally one, possibly two action beats is all you need to describe an emotion.

In my first example, it was extended because it was part of a climactic scene. So there are times where you want to slow down your writing with a beat-by-beat description of body language. More often though, less is better.

Thoughts

Convey your character’s mood through descriptions and his emotions through body language, then mix it up with internal dialogue. Though powerful, this ought to meld into the text so seamlessly that readers barely notice. Instead of writing “he thought/knew,” relay the thought in the character’s own words.

“You do realize how much easier a Yathome is on the ears,” Drexin said. “No one would care if you journeyed into the heart of Erathrane or Solbane and found all kinds of adventures.”

Ethaniel choked back an exclamation. Adventures? Death was more like it.

“I’m just saying you ought to look at the bright side,” Drexin protested. “Like not having to memorize generations of names and deeds.”

That was it. Ethaniel braced his arms against the edge of his bed, his eyes narrowing as he estimated where a solid leap would land him.

Ethaniel’s thoughts blend with his voice and flow well with the context. This technique also gives characters a distinct voice, be it sarcastic, cautious, or pessimistic.

Bringing Subtext Together

Subtext extends beyond these three topics to concepts like themes and scenes. But for basic prose, descriptions, body language, and point-of-view thoughts are important to focus on as you practice showing instead of telling. Here’s an example of all three at work in one paragraph:

Clouds billowed in the west like great pillars of smoke, splintered with sunlight as though with flames. Ethaniel’s fingers itched, tightening around the non-existent strap at his chest. He jerked his hand down. Solbane take it all; the shield was the last thing he needed on his mind right now. He glanced over his shoulder as Bryce pulled the door of the Outpost shut with a thud and fell in step, trailing a distance behind the others.

The description sets the mood, even if it is just the subconscious idea of flames and smoke and splintered light. You watch Ethaniel trying to reach for the comfort of the shield strap, only to realize it’s gone. Bryce is following them, even if he is still sullen and reluctant. Ethaniel’s single line of thought lets you glimpse inside his mind without pulling you from the story.

Trust your readers. Let them observe what is going on and come to their own conclusions. Work subtext into your writing and let the words flow.

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2 Comments

  1. Wish I had known these tips when I first started writing! 🙂

    • Same, honestly. Though knowing and doing are two different things. Even though I study and love prose, I still have to review my own work a number of times to make sure I’m living up to my own standard.

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