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What is Subtext?

By R. Kayne
Updated Jan 26, 2024
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Subtext refers to an underlying theme or an implied relationship between characters in a book, movie, play or film. The subtext of a work is not explicitely stated, but often interpreted by fans. Subtext can be a way for the creator of a work to relay ideals, principles, controversial relationships or political statements without alienating viewers or readers who may balk at the ideas or even reject the work.

As an example, consider the cartoon Rocky & Bullwinkle (1961-1973), starring arch villains Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale. While appealing to children on one level, it was also a political satire about the cold war between Russia and the United States, couched in subtext.

American Beauty (1999) was a movie about a man going through mid-life crisis, but the subtext told a much deeper story about the gradual discovery of self-love, and the acceptance of life and death as equally beautiful, profound and mutually inextricable.

Works of science fiction often use subtext to reflect social ills and fears by substituting alien cultures or technology for human ones. For example, ET: The Extraterrestrial(1982) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). ET played on our fears of those different from ourselves, while 2001 played on our fears of intelligent technology.

More recently, subtext has played a significant role in online fandom regarding television series, movies and books that reach cult status. Subtext in this case usually relates to relationships between dramatic characters that fans either want to see together, or that they believe are subtextually portrayed as being in a relationship.

A quintessential example is the cult hit, Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001), in which Xena and her traveling companion, Gabrielle, forged a relationship that went far beyond heroine and sidekick. Online fandom was so intent upon the subtextual relationship between these two characters, that the writer/producers of the show admittedly began to write in subtext purposely. Other fandoms, like that of Star Trek Voyager (1995-2001), saw a flurry of romantic subtext between Captain Kathryn Janeway and the Borg/Human Seven of Nine. However, in this case the subtext did not appear to be purposely fed or even acknowledged by the show. Subtext can also be interpreted or imagined between opposite sex characters, such as in the case of The X Files (1993-2002) characters, Mulder and Scully.

A final definition of subtext relates to the art of writing dialog, whether for page, stage or screen. Experts point out that in real life people rarely say exactly what they mean, and dialog written too plainly (referred to as "on the nose" writing) sounds stilted and false to the ear.

For example, assume 'Tom' just went through a contentious breakup with his wife. She storms out as the phone rings. Tom jerks up the receiver to find it's his friend, Ray, who asks innocently, "What's up?" Without applying subtext, Tom might answer: "Well, I'm mad and upset. My wife and I just had a terrible fight and she left. Maybe for good." With subtext applied Tom might clench his jaw and manage, "Not much." The use of subtext draws the viewer or reader deeper into the character and story. One of the hallmarks of a good writer is a dialog rich in subtext.

Whether penning dialog or shaping a theme or relationships, be it purposeful, imagined, discovered en route or developed over time, subtext lends real emotional and intellectual depth to any dramatic or literary work.

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