09 Jan

Subtext: What is this Story Really About?

I’m on a 4 day streak, after messing up a 36 day streak of writing daily on 750words.com. Sigh. Why did I mess up? Too many family issues going on.

If you’re writing 750 words daily, too, part of the goal is to learn to think like a writer. Character relationships are important to establish, but the relationships must be natural. In order for that to happen, you must not put too much on top of the text. In other words, you must have subtext.

Subtext is the real topic of discussion, whatever is going on in the relationship.
For example, a couple might be making apple pie together, peeling apples, mixing up and rolling out pie crust, popping it in the oven. Their dialogue might be:

This green apple is sour.
That’s why I got half green, half red.
It’s too sour.
Then add sugar?
Yes. Sometimes you need to sweeten things up a bit.


Straightforward, talking about apple pie. But the subtext could vary. Maybe they had a fight that morning and when one says “sour” they really are talking about the fight. When the other offers to add sugar, maybe it’s a subtle apology.

This green apple is sour. She hesitated, waiting for him to speak.
That’s why I got half green, half red.
It’s too sour.
He took the knife from her hand and turned her around.
Then add sugar? He bent to kiss her.
Afterward, she said, Yes. Sometimes you need to sweeten things up a bit.

The text is still talking about making apple pie, but the subtext is the couple making up after a fight.

What if it is two brothers?

His mouth puckered: This apple is sour.
Tight lipped, his brother said, That’s why I got half green, half red.
He shook his head and dropped the apple in the trash: It’s too sour.
His brother pulled it out again and slammed it onto the counter and glared.
Quickly now, hoping to avert the anger, he stuttered, Th-th-then add sugar?
Yes. His brother’s eyes gleamed red and he rolled up his sleeves and flexed his fist. Sometimes you need to sweeten things up a bit.

You get the idea. It’s not the dialogue, per se, that carries the weight of a relationship. Sometimes, it’s the subtext. Often that is in the dialogue itself, but often it is in the beats or actions, thoughts and emotions responding to the dialogue. Think like a writer: what is really going on in a relationship?

2 thoughts on “Subtext: What is this Story Really About?

  1. Darcy, thanks for all this helpful information on subtext. Yes,outside pressures and trying to do all a woman has to take care of, can be very stressful. Take one day at a time.

  2. Pingback: Think Like a Writer: Table of Contents

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