Reading Between the Lines

As a writer, or as a reader, how important is subtext to you? Is it a necessary feature for you to really enjoy a story? Do you automatically include it when you write? Do you ever intentionally include it, or is it something that happens naturally?

I always write with a cinematic view…that is, my scenes play out in my mind, so there is always more going on than what’s necessarily written down. Subtle glances between characters, body language, whatever the cat is doing on the other side of the room…some of these details can be caught in the narrative, but I don’t think all of them can. Nor are they supposed to be. If two characters are giving each other a meaningful look behind the back of the MC, the MC isn’t going to have any idea that the look is taking place.

And I feel the same way about dialogue, too. When characters are talking, one character might mean to say something with a certain suggestive emphasis, or there may be a secret meaning behind the phrase. But that doesn’t mean that MC recognizes this, and they may take the statement in a completely different direction.

I don’t honestly think that all authors use subtext. I think for some authors, what’s on the page is what’s there. But for me, I love ripping into the lines and pulling out every possible meaning, every possible emphasis, and every possible look. I’ll totally admit that I have a habit of “shipping” relationships which are not the ones written down, so I love to decipher hidden meanings in chats, arguments, and silences (especially silences!) I’m sure there are some authors who would be appalled at the amount of subtext I’ve managed to carve out of their work. And, so, of course I wonder…did they put the subtext in, or am I just twisting the white space between the lines to fit my own desires?

Sometimes it can be annoying not to understand exactly what is going on in a story, but I think more often than not I love when I’m not 100% sure what a character means when they say something, or move a certain way. I love to think that the MC can be completely oblivious of what’s going on around him/her, and I like when as a reader, I have the chance to figure things out first by subtle hints the writer has thrown to me.

What about you?


  • E.D.

    I think subtext is important – it enriches the writing and reading process. I also write with a cinematic view – that too, I believe makes the process a more complete one.
    Good post!

  • Deshipley

    I don't think I'm a terribly subtle person (or rather, my attempts at subtlety are often terrible), but I do enjoy when others employ that particular finesse I lack. Maybe if I see it done well, enough times, I'll figure out how to better make it work in my own writing. …Or maybe I just can't tell when my writing's being successfully subtle, since I know so well what I'm hinting at! Memo to self: Grill my beta readers for their impressions on the matter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *