Peggy Bechko on Subtext

by Peggy Bechko

Do you always say what you mean to say? No?

Neiither does maybe 90% of the rest of the human race. It’s kind of weird, this word play. Almost like we’re constantly playing games with each other’s emotions and thoughts.

It’s also the beauty of making interaction between humans fascinating. And if you’re not taking advantage of subtext in your writing as you do in your life, then you as a writer are missing out on a big chunk of how to make your script or novel worth reading.

So let’s talk about subtext and what is really ‘in between the lines.” How can you inject some really juicy subtext into your tale?

Think about people. How they operate.

Then give your character some objective to strive toward.

There are big picture objectives like winning a war, and there are smaller picture objectives like riding into town. Either way, an objective gives your character something that drives him or her.

It’s a goal. That underlying goal which will almost effortlessly add subtext to every character interplay in your story.

But don’t stop there.

An action when the character is speaking or trying to convey a point is another great way of opening the door to subtext.

You can’t just have your character ask for or demand whatever it is they want. Instead it’s much more revealing to rely on things like body language and tone of voice.

If we’re talking young kids on a swing set there might be some sticking out of tongue involved. An adult might give someone the finger behind their back (or to their face).

Whatever it is that conveys their actual feelings, no matter what they’re actually saying, is subtext. And that action in your script or novel allows your audience to read between the lines of your story to get at what those characters really want.

No explaining on your part necessary (or wanted).

One good way to teach yourself how to handle subtext is to write your scene (make it a short one, especially for the first go-round) and then replace the dialog with, well, nothing.

Type some placeholders but no actual dialog. All you’ll be left with is things like, man blows a smoke ring, woman steps back, man puffs the cigar, woman makes a sour face.

Even without dialog your scene should be pretty clear. In the example the woman plainly doesn’t like the cigar smoke and the guy is plainly using it to antagonize her.

Get it? Try it a few times and see how it reveals where the weak points are in your storytelling subtext.

Another great way to bring in subtext is to give your character a secret or – better yet, how about a character who knows another character’s secret? –  right smack dab in the middle of pursuing that big picture goal? Subtext there like crazy!

Play with it some.

Get a real feel for subtext.

Watch the people around you interact.

If your dialog is ‘on the nose’ and your scenes playing out with no subtext then back up and try another tactic. Our lives are riddled with subtext, so don’t allow your scripts and novels to go without.


Peggy Bechko is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. Learn more about her sensational career HERE. Peggy’s new comic series, Planet of the Eggs, written and illustrated with Charlene Brash-Sorensen is available on Kindle. And, while you’re at it, visit the Planet of the Eggs Facebook page and her terrific blog.