Say It To Me In Subtext


February 13, 2014 by Ifeoma Dennis

There’s a writing trick I’m trying to master, which is called subtexting. Actually, one of the scenes I wrote last night had a minor subplot subtexting in it, which inspired me to write this post.

In the said scene, I was about to cross the line with a SEE ME! subtext (you know, subtexts that explain the subtext much like this particular parenthesis is trying to do) 🙂 but caught myself in time.

Earlier in the scene with said subtext

Earlier in the scene with said subtext

Subtexting and clues are almost the same thing to me, because you hide clues in sentences that are subtexts, and sometimes, you hide clues in events that are also subtexts.

And because I’m a sucker for explaining with scenarios, I’d show you one that might help explain the new tricks I’ve learned better.



Ada goes to the Old City market where she buys a Death Poison.

She gives it to her best friend, Sara who is dating her sick and secret enemy.

Being her secret enemy, that goes without saying that Ada didn’t tell Sara she ABSOLUTELY LOATHES the boyfriend or that the Energy Snack she gave Sara was not actually an Energy Snack but a Death Poison.

Of course, Ada knows Sara would not take the Energy Snack because Sara is allergic to the Energy Snack. In fact, given the long history Sara’s Boyfriend and Ada had shared, Ada knows the Energy Snack is his favorite thing.


So let’s say Sara’s Boyfriend dies a few days later, and the context of the story/subplot is did the sick boy die of natural causes?

Was it that the doctors who tended to him were incapable?

Or could it be the ridiculous age-old prophecy of Sara’s boyfriend dying of poisoning at age 21 that eventually came true?


Now the question:

Sara decides it is the age-old prophecy that came true but now she was going to find who did it, how do you get through the plot/sub-plot without giving it away that it was Ada?

But this is difficult you see, because a reader who read Ada giving Sara the Energy Snack at the beginning could easily guess things at this point. And usually, it is important you show this happening somewhere at the beginning, so you don’t spring Surprises-From-Nowhere at the reader.


Here are some of the things I could do after or before said event at the beginning, together or separately:


1. Backstory:

In this case, I might use a backstory showing Ada’s previous relationship with Sara.

Old me might do this: I’d show Sara reminiscing on when Ada would always come back from the Old City with a gift for Sara. Or when a minor character would sulkily ask Ada, “why do you always buy things for Sara and not for me?”

New me’s likely to do this: I could make Sara remember giving Ada things she bought when she went to the Old City.

I leave it to my reader to deduce it could go both ways.


2. Present day events:

After the death of Sara’s boyfriend, that is.

Old me: I’d show Ada buying more things from the Old City for Sara after the boyfriend’s death. Hello reader, make the connection! I don’t want you to be too lost. 🙂

New me: I’d show Sara/Ada suggesting to the other that they go to the Old City and shop to keep happy like old times. This could also work with (D) explained below.


C. Confusion:

Old me: I’d show Ada along with some other friends giving Sara goodies while Secret Enemy was still sick. Since Sara was taking care of him, she had little time to cook. But I’d MAKE SURE to focus on Sara receiving something from Ada, much like the capslock.

New Me: Sara would still get something from Ada and friends, but none would be more important. Matter of fact, I might make Sara focus on the one that’s less important to make the reader ignore Ada’s gift.

But again, this is a slightly difficult trick by itself, since readers like me would always look for the unobvious, so it’s best to balance it…you know, don’t make the unobvious so unobvious the readers would suspect it is THE THING, but balance it in a way that you make it obvious but not important.

Okay, not sure if unobvious is a word, but hey, I’m a writer 😉 and I can invent things.


D. History:

Before said event.

Old me: I’d show that poisons are sold in the Old City. This is not a bad subtexting in itself, if I can show that poisons AND other things are sold in the Old City.

New Me: I could show Ada and Sara passing by a shop where the people that are coming out looked suspiciously evil. Or better yet, where one of the people coming out was someone Ada/Sara recognized as evil. They’d probably discuss that.


Not that I’m perfect in this art of subtexting yet.  For my fantasy mystery/suspense/thriller/sorry-not-sure-of-the-genre, I use dozens of methods I can’t articulate here. Sometimes, I delete them after writing because I feel it’s a giveaway subtext. Sometimes, I keep them.

But one thing is sure, it is really my most fun part of writing, and also one I’m quite curious about.


How about you? How do you handle subtexting? What are your tricks for making the obvious not obvious?


7 thoughts on “Say It To Me In Subtext

  1. Given that I was impressed with the “old you” way of dealing with each problem, I must be pretty horrible at subtexting. I agree with Krystal, I’ve never given it a lot of thought. My line of thinking has always been “Okay, I have this twist coming up and I need to foreshadow it. Let me shove this line in chapter three. Alrighty, DONE.” The scenario you described above really highlights the difference between writing in a way that’s “good enough” versus writing with that sort of finesse that sweeps the reader away.

    • Haha Jodi, you made me laugh. But having read your book (at least, the part you’ve written), I think you do it well. I didn’t guess who’d cursed you-know-who until it was revealed. By the time I’ve read your whole book, we’d definitely think of everything big-picture wise and how they all fit in.

      So don’t worry about that.

      Like everything in life, we’d have to keep working on the things we “know how to do” until we get to that place where finesse trumps “good enough”. 🙂

  2. amandashayne says:

    This is something I have very little experience with. I don’t think I tried at all to do this in the first book I ever wrote, but I definitely need to do it in DD. I love your ideas. I knew the trick about emphasizing the wrong clue and glossing over the real clue, but I never thought to consider the inherent problems with making the unobvious so unobvious “the readers would suspect it is THE THING.” All very important things to remember!! I know we’ll help each other with this when we read each other’s stories, though. 🙂

    • I don’t feel I have much experience with it either, except if reading mystery books count? 😀
      It’s difficult coming up with ways to hide clues, because readers are used to most of these tricks, so umh…that means we’d have to work harder at it.

      But like you said, we’ll help each other get through it! ❤

  3. krystal jane says:

    This is really interesting. I can’t say I’ve thought about it quite like this before. Based on this I would have to say that I’m probably quite horrible at it. I remember in college, people got in a debate over who my killer was in a short story. I love tricking the reader! The only hint I may give the reader is someone’s eye color, which is easy to gloss over sometimes. I have a story right now, where the only hint the reader is going to get is a couple of stage props, so I hope it’s a surprise.

    The idea of Sara focusing on another item to down play the Energy Snack/Death Poison (awesome names!) is really good. It’s like one of the things the reader can kick themselves about later because they missed it. I love inserting a random weapon somewhere and then using it later. ^_^

    • Thanks for your ideas! I love the way you use the weapons!

      It’s really a hard art, but I plan on asking my CPs to write down their predictions as they read, so I’ll know how many of them predict what happens correctly, and if my clue-hiding skills need improvement. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

"Dreams can get you through anything."

-Cat York


Topics I Blog About

Writing progress


First Draft:

93210 / 90000 words. 104% done!

Second Draft:

40482 / 90000 words. 45% done!

%d bloggers like this: