Essays, Misc, Stories

Subtext: Writing a Story Within a Story

Writers write for different reasons, but usually it’s because, well, we have something to say. Sometimes, just what that might be isn’t known at the moment we sit down at the computer. Then there are times we know exactly what the message is and we set to writing it with purpose and effort. Then how come, even then, we end up with luke-warm responses or with something that isn’t as memorable as we’d thought?

I’d like to look at something I think is often missing in stories, particularly short stories and flash fiction: writing with subtext. Now, especially in flash fiction, there often isn’t a lot of room for ‘extras’ but that doesn’t mean we can’t take time to think about the elements we do use in order to craft a meaningful piece. Any story we write is meant to have impact, but if the reader forgets about it seconds after reading, well that’s bit of a disappointment, isn’t it?

A quick search on subtext revealed a lot of posts on dialog and setting and how to use them to imply what is not expressly written. For this post, I’m taking it a little larger in the sense of looking at meanings or ideas which underlie the ‘cover story’, which can be communicated through various devices like dialogue and setting. So why is subtext important? It’s because it’s the jewel buried under the obvious which adds depth to the story and characters while creating the emotional connection we all search for in a read. Without it, stories can come off feeling flat. Or worse, end up forgettable.

I’m not saying I have the magic solution to this, but I do think adding layers of subtext can help. To start, we have to begin thinking about our stories on more than one level. Decide on your ‘cover story’, the surface one the reader came to read. Then take time to consider what elements are driving and influencing that story. What motivates these characters—what do they fear or worry, what is their internal or external conflict really rooted in? How do these elements affect the stakes? Now, the key is not to bash the reader over the head with this information or it would no longer be subtext but part of the cover story. But by carefully planning when, where and how much information to include without interrupting the flow of the main story, you can take your story from 2D to 3D.

One example of this is a flash fiction piece I wrote a while back called Shadow in the Sun. (You can decide it’s worth but I use it because a reader specifically mentioned its subtext so I figured it responded to the purpose of this post. For the sake of space, I’ll only include the link but feel free to read it). On first glance, this is a story about a sad woman burying her dead cat, and some stories would stay on that level (and that’s fine). But as this story develops, it becomes clear that this cat represented much more to her than being a simple pet. The clues left for the reader infer a) what happened to her b) how she felt about it c) how she dealt with it, and leaves the reader to piece together the real story and to make the connection with the act of burying the cat. What’s important is that the reader comes to their own conclusions, and owning them, creates their own unique relationship to the story. And that, I think, is the true power of subtext.

Anyway, those are a few thoughts on subtext. Anyone have other thoughts or ideas to share on the subject? I’d love to hear them.

14 thoughts on “Subtext: Writing a Story Within a Story

  1. I agree with you, Dyane. Subtext, when handled right, can make a story memorable. My example is the Harry Potter series. Whether JK Rowling meant for it to have the subtext I drew from it or not, for me it is there and it’s that love is mighty, it concurs all. Not being a romantic book, it’s loaded with hints and suggestions at the power that emotion yields. Harry’s mother love for her son, Snape’s, Jenny’s mother reaction in that memorable scene at the end where she defends her child, and…well, there are many examples that show what a person can do for his/her loved ones. However, none of these examples is thrust upon us…that’s the beauty of it.
    I’ve read books where I was impressed by the “hidden message” I sensed, only to discover the author hadn’t worked for it, hadn’t even meant to include it. Perhaps we each see a reflection of ourselves in what we read, and accordingly in what we write.
    All I know is, when I read a memorable book, I dig to find what made it so interesting. And really, end of the day, writers want their books to be remembered. When they write from their hearts, it shows in the eye of the beholder.


    1. Absolutely, Su. It’s not an easy balance to do as being too subtle can result in the meaning being lost, or going too heavy with it and, well, we’re being preached at. But it’s definitely something to be worked on and developed if we hope to write meaningful pieces, I think. 🙂


    2. So true about it being so hard to balance subtext. When it’s character background related and it’s too oblique it can be confusing – or even frustrating! There have been times I’ve read a book and character history was hinted at, seemed to play an important part in the development of the person/plot, but not enough information was ever given and I ended up feeling like I’d missed the first book in the series or something!

      Yet in keeping it slightly vague we allow the reader to fill in the blanks with part of their own past, making the character feel like an intimate acquaintance, someone they understand and relate to – it’s like Su said so beautifully, even when we’re the reader our own perspective reflects on the book.


    3. Excellent points! It is a tough balance to achieve but from the feedback I’ve read readers definitely appreciate when it’s done right. 🙂


  2. Dyane, fantastic post! I’ve read books about writing and taken the obligatory English college courses – but I’ve forgotten most of it over the years (oh, yea, subtext!). That’s why I’ve opened up a second blog to focus on my writing. Any way, I just posted my first essay (narrative) and tried to incorporate emotion without using a hammer (subtext?).
    I read your flash fiction piece and I can tell you that I felt the woman’s sadness and loneliness. I can relate and it made me think of someday loosing my Mollie (dog). It’s also given me an idea for a flash fiction piece myself with a somewhat similar underlying theme. Thank you!!! Colleen


    1. That’s fantastic, Colleen! I’m so glad that you were inspired by the post and the story. Thank you so much for reading and commenting. Best of luck in your writing and hope to hear more about your journey. 🙂


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