Question: Am taking a university writing course now and the instructor keeps talking about "subtext," but I'm not understanding what he's talking about, Arline. I had you for a teacher ten years ago and you were so helpful. Can you help me now? Faye.
Answer: I remember you, Faye. You were doing a novel set in Australia, right? We had a log discussion about dialogue paragraphing back then. Glad you still remember me...and glad to comment on subtext, which is the deeper meaning the reader takes away from what is written.
In dialogue and narrative both there is always both text and subtext. First there is what is said, and second what is implied by what is left unsaid. Often, subtext, which the reader picks up on, is as important as what is actually said. Look at the following after-dinner response from a husband:
“Oh, is that slide show at the library with the nature photographer tonight?” John grimaced. “I’ll go if you want, but I’m really tired. After all, I was out to the Bible Study at church last night and you stayed home and read. This makes two nights in a row, for me. Of course, I don’t like to mess up your plans....”
The text says he's sorry and doesn't want to mess up her plans. But the subtext points out that she was uncooperative the night before.
So of course he wants to mess up her plans. If he didn’t, he’d say, “You go ahead, hon, I’m too tired tonight. What this really says is, “You couldn’t find time to go with me last night, so I’m NOT going to be nice about what you want to do tonight.”
The text is one of concern and cooperation. The subtext is, "To hell with your plans!"