Purple Prose + suspense

The Secrets of Subtext

Fiction is like an iceberg. Only twenty-five percent of it is visible (the words on the page). The other seventy-five percent is known as subtext. It’s the part that is tricky to convey, but when you do it right, it makes for a compelling story.

Last week, I told you about the Toyota dude and the issue with my van doors. He didn’t tell me he was nervous when I calmly asked my question, again and again. His body language gave him away. I interpreted, based on what he didn’t say and how he acted, that Toyota had never inspected the doors during the regular maintenance, even though they knew there was a design flaw. But maybe I was wrong*. Maybe he was shifting on his feet and looking at his coworkers, who were busy staring at their computer screens, because his bladder was about to explode due to a super large latte he recently consumed. Maybe he was hoping someone would come to his aid so he could go to the bathroom before he humiliated himself.

Okay, I didn’t believe that either, but it does show you how things might not always be as they seem. That’s the beauty of subtext. It can add an element of suspense. You can have your character screw up by thinking the subtext means something else and misdirect your reader. But make sure it’s believable. If your reader can guess the truth behind the subtext, your misdirection will come off as contrived and your character will sound like an idiot.

It isn’t always necessary to spell out the subtext for your readers. Often it’s more satisfying if you let them figure it out for themselves. That’s the beauty of fiction. It exercises our brains. However, if the subtext is confusing and is going to frustrate the reader, then definitely have a character spell it out.

One thing to avoid is the mistake director Catherine Hardwicke made in Twilight and Red Riding Hood. In Twilight, she wanted to show Edward’s eyes, which changed color depending on when he last ate blood. In Red Riding Hood, she wanted to show that the werewolf had human eyes. Fair enough. But in both movies, the close-up shots of the eyes filled the screen, and the camera stayed zoomed on them for way longer than necessary. In Red Riding Hood, Catherine then focused on everyone’s eyes so we could examine them (not necessary, if you ask me). Except, I doubt Amanda Seyfried (Red Riding Hood) was leaning that close to the individuals, and for that long, to check out their eyes. At one point, my eleven-year-old said in an exasperated tone, “Yeah, yeah, we get it.”

Lesson: don’t underestimate your readers’ intelligence. They won’t appreciate it.

Do you use subtext to misguide your readers?


I’ll be talking more about subtext next week.

(*I wasn’t wrong. Toyota never inspected the doors until I complained about the noise. And by then it was too late.)

fiction, movie, subtext, and more:

The Secrets of Subtext + suspense