The Art of Subtext: How Great Writers Master the Unspoken

By Corrine Asbell


Great writers have long recognized the significance of subtext. 

The art of subtext is a subtle and intricate skill that allows authors to convey complex emotions, ideas, and relationships without explicitly stating them. 

Words are more than just vehicles for conveying information; they are the brushstrokes on a canvas, the notes in a symphony, and the building blocks of the human experience. 

Yet, the true magic of storytelling often resides not in what is explicitly stated but in the unspoken – the subtext that dances beneath the surface of a narrative. 

Understanding Subtext

Subtext refers to the underlying albeit implicit messages, emotions, and themes that are not directly expressed in the text but are instead conveyed through nuances, implications, and context. 

It’s the unspoken dialogue within a story that readers must uncover and interpret. 

Subtext adds depth and richness to narratives, inviting readers to engage actively with the text, and often leaving them with a deeper appreciation of the work.

One of the most critical aspects of subtext is its ability to convey complex emotions and relationships. 

By leaving certain aspects of a character’s feelings or motivations unsaid, writers can create intrigue, suspense, and a sense of authenticity. 

Subtext allows readers to empathize with characters and draw their own conclusions, making the reading experience more immersive and thought-provoking.

The Role of Character Development

The cover of the Great Gastby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a master of subtext.

Character development is a fundamental component of subtext.

Great writers understand that a character’s thoughts, emotions, and motivations are not always explicitly stated in the narrative.

Instead, they are often revealed through subtle actions, reactions, and dialogue. 

Readers must pay attention to the nuances and subtextual cues to fully grasp a character’s internal world.

For example, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby the enigmatic Jay Gatsby’s true feelings for Daisy Buchanan are not overtly expressed. 

Still, they are conveyed through his extravagant parties, his obsession with wealth and status, and his desperate attempts to win her affection. 

It is through subtext that readers uncover the depth of Gatsby’s love and his inner turmoil.

Dialogue as a Tool for Subtext

The cover of the The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle, a master of subtext.

Dialogue is a powerful tool for conveying subtext in literature. 

When characters engage in conversation, what is left unsaid often carries more weight than what is spoken. 

Writers can use subtext to create tension, conflict, and hidden agendas within dialogue, adding layers of complexity to their stories.

Consider the dialogue between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Holmes frequently withholds information from Watson, not revealing his deductions until the critical moment. 

This creates suspense and intrigue, drawing readers into the story as they try to decipher the unspoken elements of their relationship and the mystery they are unraveling.

Symbolism and Metaphor

The cover of the Animal Farm by George Orwell, a master of subtext.

Another potent tool in the arsenal of great writers is symbolism and metaphor. 

These literary devices allow authors to convey abstract ideas and emotions through concrete objects or actions. 

Symbolism and metaphor can be particularly effective in conveying subtext, as they invite readers to explore deeper meanings beneath the surface of the narrative.

In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the farm and its transformation symbolize the rise and fall of a political revolution. 

The subtext lies in the parallels between the animals’ struggle for freedom and the historical events they represent. 

Through this subtext, Orwell delivers a powerful critique of totalitarianism and human nature.

Themes and Subtext

The cover of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, a master of subtext.

Themes play a significant role in subtext, as they often underpin the entire narrative, shaping the story’s subtextual layers. 

Themes can be explored through character interactions, symbolism, and narrative structure, providing readers with insights into the deeper messages and ideas embedded in the text.

In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the theme of racial prejudice is central to the narrative. 

The subtext of the story is intricately woven into the characters’ attitudes, actions, and interactions. 

Readers are invited to reflect on the implicit biases and injustices present in the society depicted in the novel, making it a thought-provoking exploration of the subtextual layers of prejudice.

The Subtext of Relationships

The cover of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, a master of subtext.

One of the most compelling aspects of subtext is its ability to illuminate the complexities of human relationships. 

Great writers often use subtext to convey the dynamics, tensions, and unspoken emotions that characterize interactions between characters.

In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the budding romance between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy is steeped in subtext. 

Their initial encounters are marked by misunderstandings and unspoken feelings. 

The subtextual tension between them adds depth to the story and keeps readers eagerly anticipating their eventual union.

Suspense and Foreshadowing

The covers of the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.

Subtext can be a powerful tool for creating suspense and foreshadowing events in a narrative. 

Writers can drop subtle hints and clues throughout the story, building anticipation and curiosity among readers. 

This anticipation can be as essential to the storytelling experience as the eventual revelation itself.

In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the subtext surrounding the prophecy and the connection between Harry and Voldemort is carefully woven into the narrative. 

Hints and clues are scattered throughout the books, keeping readers engaged and speculating about the ultimate outcome. 

The Subtext of Culture and Society

The cover of 1984 by George Orwell, a master of subtext.

Great writers often use subtext to comment on and critique the culture and society of their time. 

Through subtext, they can address controversial or sensitive topics indirectly, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions and fostering a deeper exploration of social issues.

George Orwell’s 1984 is a prime example of a novel that uses subtext to critique totalitarianism and surveillance. 

The subtextual elements of the story, such as the manipulation of language and the suppression of dissent, serve as a warning about the dangers of authoritarian regimes. 

Readers are encouraged to reflect on the broader implications for their own society.

Subtext in Contemporary Literature

The cover of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, a master of subtext.

The art of subtext is not confined to classic literature; it remains a powerful tool in contemporary writing. 

Modern authors continue to harness the subtlety of subtext to create compelling and thought-provoking narratives.

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, the subtext lies in the characters’ acceptance of their predetermined fate as organ donors. 

While the characters rarely discuss the ethical and moral implications directly, their actions and emotions reveal the subtextual layers of resignation, rebellion, and the inherent injustice of their situation.

Subtext in Film and Television

jack torrence walks down a frozen maze route, crazy in his eyes

The art of subtext is not limited to the written word. 

It is also prevalent in film and television, where visual cues, facial expressions, and non-verbal communication play a significant role in conveying unspoken messages.

Director Stanley Kubrick was a master of subtext in film. In The Shining, for example, the subtext is woven into the visual symbolism, the eerie atmosphere, and the gradual descent into madness of the main character, Jack Torrance. 

The film’s subtext goes beyond the work provided by Stephen King and invites viewers to explore themes of isolation, familial tension, and the supernatural.


The art of subtext is a powerful and intricate skill that great writers use to convey complex emotions, ideas, and relationships within their narratives. 

Subtext invites readers to engage actively with the text, uncover hidden layers of meaning, and explore the depths of human experience. 

It is through subtext that literature becomes a mirror reflecting the complexities of our own lives and society.

As readers, we can appreciate the craftsmanship of great writers who master the unspoken, recognizing that it is often what remains unsaid that resonates most deeply with our hearts and minds. 

Subtext challenges us to become active participants in the storytelling process, encouraging us to decipher the hidden messages, emotions, and themes that lie beneath the surface of the narrative.

In an age where directness and clarity often prevail, the art of subtext reminds us of the beauty and power of nuance and ambiguity in literature. 

It is a testament to the enduring relevance of subtext that continues to captivate and enrich our literary experiences, making it a timeless and indispensable aspect of storytelling.


  • Corrine Asbell

    Corrine Asbell is a former journalist and an unashamed video game aficionado. When not glued to her PS5 she’s rewatching Star Wars and trying to learn Swedish. Hej hej!

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