How to Write Subtext: Don’t Be Captain Obvious

At one point in time you’ve read a novel or watched a movie and finished it saying, “Man, that was too preachy.” Some say on the nosecheesy, spoon-fed, or in your face, but what they really mean is the writer didn’t use subtext to get across a message but rather used exposition in the dialogue or narration.

We’ll call this writer Captain Obvious. You don’t want to be Captain Obvious. 

Here are a few reasons why:

  1. Audiences/Readers hate being patronized.
  2. Powerful messages can only be delivered underneath.
  3. Real life never points to the obvious.
  4. Obvious things rarely intrigue or pull in the audience.

For writers, being Captain Obvious is easy. It’s probably what most writers do the first few drafts they ever write. Telling the audience exactly what you mean doesn’t require any real thought. And some writers like it that way and hate the idea of being coy or trying to put hidden messages in their writing. Stop being coy, they say. In non-fiction this makes sense. But to create a compelling story, you have to be coy and that means subtext.

Subtext generates intrigue, makes it personable, relatable, and doesn’t come across as if the author or writer has all the answers. Shallow waters will not satisfy a strong swimmer. In the same way, Captain Obvious’s stories won’t satisfy audiences with their on-the-nose storytelling. As a writer, you have a responsibility to draw in and engage the audience with every tool, and subtext is a powerful tool that easily helps engage an audience. Rather than thinking for them, you make them think for themselves.

What does subtext look like and how can we use to generate it? Stay tuned.

Some of these reflections, thoughts, tips, and ideas derive from my reading of Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath by Dr. Linda Seger. I highly encourage reading her book for more insight.