That's because subtext is what's unsaid. It's all the words that should be there, but aren't. It's hidden meaning and missing facts. Subtext is shrouded in silence.
|Subtext makes the reader see MORE than what's there.|
Without the information, the characters in the scene interact on one level.
But with the information, the reader puts on the equivalent of literary 3-D glasses and the scene POPS. Subtext creates undercurrents of tension. It's the plot's negative space. It's the underlying thing that makes the whole scene stick.
No wonder it's so misunderstood. It's the thing that exists only when it's not there.
I recently saw a perfect real-life example of subtext. Sometimes, to understand a thing, it's better to experience it than to explain it. So, without further ado, I present:
Setting: A Daytime Talk-Show
* Ditzy Airhead Hostess (DAH)
* Super-Hot Actor Guy (SHAG)
* Normal Ordinary Regular Male actor (NORM)
DAH: I'm here with Shag and Norm, and Shag, I have to tell you, you are even more gorgeous in person than on screen. Isn't he, ladies? I mean, just look at you!
Appreciative "WHOOOoo's" from audience. SHAG smiles graciously.
SHAG: Uh. Thank you.
DAH: Now the two of you, together, you have such great chemistry. It's like a bromance. You just click, you know?
SHAG: We have a great cast. I've been a fan of Norm's work for a long time. Flashes a million-watt grin.
NORM: We're very lucky that our styles work well together.
DAH: They certainly do! You two really seem to get along. Do you hang out with each other after shooting? You know, go out for drinks or dinner when you're not working?
SHAG: Well, we work together 70 hours a week. There isn't a lot of time left over for socializing.
DAH: That's right. That's right! Oh, and Norm, you have a family! That kind of work schedule is tough with what: two kids?
NORM: (nods) Two kids. So it's hard, you know. I'm working so many hours during the week. But I try to be there for their soccer games. And recitals. I don't get to see my wife as much as I would like. That's the tough part of the job. I do the best I can to make the time to be with them.
DAH: It's tough. I understand. So, Shag. I bet the women are all over you. You hear the screaming in our audience. You never worry about going out alone or needing a date, do you?
SHAG: The fans are awesome. They're so enthusiastic. But we work all day most days. Usually, if we're awake, we're working.
DAH: Well, whatever you're doing, it's working! Isn't it ladies?
More appreciative "WHOOOoo's" from audience. SHAG flashes another aw-shucks smile. NORM just shakes his head and laughs, knowing the screams aren't for him.
DAH: Shag and Norm, thank you so much for visiting. Shag and Norm from "That Hit Show," everyone!
SHAG: Thank you.
NORM: Thanks for having us.
That's a fairly accurate transcript of what happened. There's plenty of dramatic tension on the surface just from the situation, the inanity of the host, and the built-in discomfort that arises from seeing human beings put on display while vocalized ogling is encouraged.
But where's the subtext?
Ah. I'm glad you asked. It is this: "Shag" is gay. He's in a long-term committed relationship. He and his partner have kids. It's common knowledge in the industry. Even his IMDb listing is up-front about his orientation.
See how that changes things?
Your personal thoughts about gay rights or gay marriage don't matter. What matters is how one extra unsaid fact colors the entire interview. Those changes - those colors - are subtext.
I watched the piece while holding that one additional pixel of information and it changed the entire flavor of the interview.
On the surface, the Hostess' drivel appeared vacuous. But the subtext made her seem venomous.
On the surface, Shag listened attentively as Norm talked with obvious pride about his kids. As a testament to his acting skills, not a single shadow of doubt or sadness crossed his face to dim his smile. The added subtext, however, made the situation heartbreaking.
Subtext also increased the dramatic tension with unanswered questions: Should he mention his kids? Would that kill his career? Would it kill the show? Did the Hostess know his situation? Was she trying to goad him into spilling about his personal life? Or was she really as stupid as she appeared?
And that, my friends is the secret of subtext. Arm a character or two with more information than the rest of the cast, let the reader in on it, and turn them loose on a scene. Then put on your 3-D specs and watch the drama unfold.