Subtext may reveal a lot more than you think. It also lets your readers infer meaning, which
creates an immersive experience as they feel trusted to figure things out on their own.
When we have conversations in our daily lives, there is a lot of subtext involved. Things like
expressions, body language, a missing response, or changing the subject. All these can be blatant
or subtle and can depend on the relationship between us and who we are talking to. The same
goes for your characters.
Consider what you do when you don’t believe what someone is telling you or have heard it all
before. Do you roll your eyes? Look away? Cross your arms?
We usually act differently when we are speaking to a friend vs. speaking to an authority figure.
You’re more relaxed and open with a friend; your body language is lax, and your sentences are
clipped. But with an authority figure, you may speak more formally or show more respect.
Use these clues to show how a character relates to another, without stating it—subtext.
Focus on nonverbal cues. Consider the characters’ body language, facial expressions, gestures,
and tone of voice.
These elements can contradict or emphasize the dialogue and add layers of meaning. Pay
attention to how characters react or behave while speaking, as it can provide insights into their
true thoughts and emotions.
“How was your day?”
Ann gave her husband a look of exasperation. He was thumbing through the mail as usual.
Here Ann’s husband asks but obviously doesn’t care about her response and is something she
deals with daily. It isn’t necessary to state he wasn’t paying attention. It shows through his
Ambiguity and subtlety
Subtext thrives on ambiguity and the unsaid. Rather than stating everything explicitly, allow
your characters to communicate through nuances, implications, and hidden meanings. Leave
room for readers to interpret and engage with the underlying messages and emotions conveyed
through the dialogue.
Let’s go back to Ann and her husband.
“I’m more interested in your day. How was it?” Ann said.
“Did you make rolls for dinner? You know how I love your buns.”
She downplays her importance, and what she says implies he’s more interested in himself.
Now Allen doesn’t answer her question, but moves on to another topic. They obviously don’t
share much with each other, and he’s more concerned with dinner and other activities than
having a conversation with her.
Complex relationships and power dynamics
Subtext can flourish in relationships that possess intricate power dynamics, hidden agendas, or
unspoken desires. Explore the dynamics between your characters, their history, and their
motivations. Consider how their history and hidden motives influence their conversations and
create tensions beneath the surface.
Ann at work.
She walked into her supervisor’s office with her head down. “I was wondering about today’s
shipment of oranges. They are from a different vend—”
“You are questioning me?”
“I, well, I was only wondering.” She clasped her hands in front of her, her gaze still on the
She’s wary or scared of her boss, who makes it clear he is in control and doesn’t respect her
Metaphor and symbolism
Metaphorical and symbolic language can be powerful tools for creating subtext in dialogue.
Characters may use metaphors, analogies, or symbolic references to convey their thoughts
indirectly. These literary devices can deepen the meaning of the dialogue, providing additional layers of
interpretation for the readers.
Ann with a friend.
“Allen’s heart is steel. Leave him.” Tasha clasped Ann’s hand.
She looked her in the eye. “Used to be the light of my life.”
Tasha understands Ann’s situation with her husband and is offering her support, comfort, and
advice. Ann has no trouble with the physical contact. She meets Tasha’s gaze, which shows she
feels they are equals, and clips her sentence showing she knows Tasha well.
See how much subtext can be used in a simple two-line conversation?
I used showing instead of telling, as well!
Show don’t tell
Show subtext through the characters’ interactions and conversations. Allow your readers to infer
the unspoken thoughts and emotions through the dialogue and its context. Subtext is most
effective when you let your readers interpret what’s said and not said. This creates a more
immersive and engaging experience. More about show don’t tell here…
Leverage subtext to explore themes and messages
Subtext can be a powerful technique for exploring the themes and messages of your fiction
novel. Use it to delve into complex topics and social issues. The unspoken thoughts and
underlying messages in your characters’ dialogue can provoke reflections and discussions long
after readers have finished your book.
Remember, creating subtext in dialogue requires finesse and subtlety. Balancing what is said
with what is left unsaid can elevate the depth and complexity of your novel. Practice observing
human interactions, master the art of implication, and refine your ability to craft meaningful and
layered dialogue that keeps readers intrigued and invites them to delve beneath the surface.
About the author
Kristin is an internationally renowned professional editor, specializing in developmental, line,
and copy editing of speculative and crime fiction.
She’s edited over seventy manuscripts, including two bestsellers. Many of her clients are authors
who self-publish or submit to agents and publishers. Kristin is a contracted editor for Brooke
Warner Coaching, LLC., She Writes Press, Greenleaf Book Group, as well as the editorial
service companies—Book Butchers and The Literary Consultancy. At Literary Wanderlust, a
traditional publisher, she held the position of assistant editor.