7 strategies for utilizing subtext to cost your scenes

What comes to mind when you think of the books and stories that you have loved to read and that you remember and inspire thoughts and emotions? Why are these special stories so lasting?

The scenes in the story were probably woven into something deeper when it appeared on the surface. As writers, we always work, practice and study to make our stories as good as possible. That is our job, and today we're going to take a look at an advanced technique that we can use to add interest to a scene by giving it an underlying meaning that is implied by surface action and dialogue.

I am talking about subtext.

Why subtext?

Like a puzzle, the subtext makes the reader's brain work and assembles clues to arrive at the emotional truth of the scene. It makes the story more exciting and memorable for the reader, because the truth of a scene is not in the words, but in the core between word and deed.

Sometimes direct dialogue works best for your purpose, but there are situations where your writing is more effective if you keep it a little “out of your nose” (and in fact, such dialogue often works that way). This can be difficult because you have to trust your reader to pick up the important subtext. However, this is an important step.

When should I use subtext?

Two special types of situations are great for the subtext. You are…

1. When the character has too much to lose by being direct

When intense emotions – such as love, hate, anger and desire – are involved, we are often afraid to express ourselves openly. It's too risky. We don't want to get it on the line, so let's cover it.

Your characters will do the same if you use subtext in such a scene.

2. If you want the reader to take an active part in the scene and actually experience the events.

Based on the underlying puzzle, a scene with subtext engages the reader's brain, gives him an active reading experience and encourages him to collect clues and interpret what is going on under the surface.

If you give the reader a direct dialogue or tell him what is going on, you cannot participate and discover the meaning of the scene for yourself. Let your reader fill in some tempting gaps.

Subtext literary definition

Subtext is the unspoken, less obvious and sometimes hidden meaning among the words and actions in a scene. It is understood in the course of the scene and the story and revealed to the reader through subtle hints. Subtext occurs when the words don't match the actions and we all know what that means: actions speak louder than words.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the subtext is with a few examples. Please follow the links to watch these film clips and better understand what I mean by subtext.

Subtext examples in the film

One of the most powerful examples of subtext in a movie scene that I can remember comes from No Country for Old Men. It's terrifying to see a man's fate balance on the thin edge of a coin, and he doesn't even understand it Undercurrent. We as viewers can put it together.

Clarice's last desperate attempt to extract the killer's name from Hannibal Lecter is filled with subtext in The Silence of The Lambs.

This fabulous example of a subtext from the film Sideways gives us a much deeper insight into the character in a beautiful and nuanced way.

Although bread is not an essential part of the subtext, I have found three good examples in which the employees of life are involved:

The famous French toast scene in Kramer vs. Kramer, where the men in the family have a “good time” to have breakfast together.

The famous French toast scene in Ordinary People, in which the mother's efficient rejection says more than words.

And check out Tom Cruise, who repairs a peanut butter sandwich for his kids in War of The Worlds. What does his daughter's simple line – "Since Birth" – say about their relationship?

You might like this short lecture on Hitchcock's use of subtext in the film Rear Window.

Perhaps the best-known example of subtext in the film is this clip from Woody Allen's Annie Hall. The use of subtitles is great for the film, but our challenge is to subtly reveal our character's thoughts and emotions without resorting to subtitles.

So how do we do that?

First of all, you need to know who your characters are, what they want, and what they're about if they don't reach their goal. Remember that the subtext is below the surface. Sometimes it is helpful to write a draft exercise that describes what the characters really think, feel, and want. This is the surface level.

Next it's time to dig under the surface. Here are some techniques you can use to create subtext.

1. Use a double meaning

Check out the sweet scene of Double Indemnity. It is full of duplicate content and subtexts, giving the viewer ample opportunity to take part in the scene. You don't have to create such a clever banter in your scene, but using double meanings is a great way to add subtext.

2. Change the subject

Louise avoids JD's reluctant examination of her evasive tactics and changes the subject at the end of this clip from Thelma and Louise.

3. Become physical

There is a lot of subtext happening in this scene from Frasier, but for this example, I want you to notice what both Daphne and Niles say without words as she rubs cream on his burn. Her reaction to Martin's receipt confirms what we all think.

4. Contrast the dialog with the action

Check out this example from "When Harry Met Sally". What speaks louder – Sally's words or deeds?

5. Say it without saying it

A good example of this technique is Crazy, Stupid Love. I particularly like Steve Carell's last line: "I don't want you to blow up the house" because what he really says is that he doesn't want her to blow up her family.

6. Mask the emotions

Ingrid Bergman hides a whole lot of subtext from Casablanca in this clip, and a lot of it will help mask her overwhelming emotions.

7. Answer a question with a question

Here's a quick and humorous example of Tootsie, in which the viewer can interpret the meaning of the cinematographer's question and give it a kick.

Add subtext to your toolbox

Now that you know the subtext better and how to create it in your scenes, you should look for ways to deepen the impact of your stories through the subtext. Think of the two situations in which it really fits – when the emotional commitment to directness is too high and you want the reader to take an active part in the scene.

Like all writing skills, it is a technique that requires practice. So be sure to look for examples in the stories you read and view and develop them in your own writing. It is worth your time and effort!

What about you? Do you like reading a scene with subtext? Do you see how you participate in the story? Tell us about it in the comments.


First, write two or three paragraphs of a draft exercise – directly, without subtext. Use an ongoing work or choose from the following prompts.

Next, dig under the surface using one of the techniques described in the article to add subtext to your scene. Remember to engage the reader. Ask them to discover the secret undercurrent, the emotional truth of the scene.


A grieving husband talks to his dead wife.

Girl meets a cute boy in a mall.

The man asks the woman to clear up her dog's chaos while walking in the park.

Write for fifteen minutes. When you're done, post your work in the comments and don't forget to give feedback to your co-authors!

Joslyn Chase

Joslyn ChaseEvery day she can send readers to the edge of her seats, tingling with tension and chewing her fingernails on the knob, is a good day for Joslyn. Get her latest thriller, Steadman & # 39; s Blind, an explosive read that lets you leaf through to the end. What leads a man to murder, their collection of short suspense, is available for free at joslynchase.com.