In the BBC Sherlock fandom there are many lively discussions about how a lot of the story takes place in subtext: Person C is a "mirror" for Protagonist A, water symbolizes emotions, drinking tea means X and drinking coffee means Y, the phone represents the heart, and so on. Writer William Goldman has a set of "writing commandments," one of them being "don't always write 'on the nose' — actions should have more than one meaning."

So when writing a story, at what point do you plan for these items? Writing one plot with a few twists and subplots is already complicated. How do you insert mirrors, symbols, and subtext? Do you have a separate thread in your mindmap or outline alongside the main thread in the outline form? Write the whole thing and work in the subtext in the third draft? Is there a particular point in the process when it's easier?

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    “There is room for things to mean more than they literally mean.” - Neil Gaiman (I always liked this quote.) Jan 20, 2017 at 17:44
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    I balk at the idea of inserting subtext. Also, symbols are not always so clear as you seem to assume. There is not a one-to-one relationship where you can definitively say a phone represents the heart. There would have to be very good evidence for that in the story....Also, it doesn't seem to me that identifying actions with symbols is a correct understanding of what a symbol actually is.
    – Lambie
    Jan 20, 2017 at 18:06
  • @Lambie trust me, there are several million words written on how definitive and one-to-one the Sherlock subtext is, but that's not my point. If you balk at the idea, fine. However, I don't, and I'm asking for tips on how to do it. If subtext isn't your cup of tea, I promise not to make you drink it. :) Jan 20, 2017 at 18:12
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    @LaurenIpsum I venture to say that most people of letters (to up the discourse just a wee bit) would disagree with you. There are millions of words on many misunderstood subjects. The presence of words on some subjects is not proof the subject matter has been understood.
    – Lambie
    Jan 20, 2017 at 19:02

5 Answers 5


I think a lot of subtext inserted into fiction is when it represents something that the writer wishes to portray, but cannot.

In one of the examples of Sherlock, like the phone of Irene Adler representing her heart, she is shown throughout the episode to be incredibly heartless and unemotional. She works for Moriarty, and targets indiscriminately using her 'talents' in order to gain money and power.

However, had she truly been this way, then the ending would not nearly have worked so well (or even made sense at all), with the reveal that

she was in love with Sherlock.

Removing the representation removes the significant subtext needed to show the difference between what the characters believe is happening, and what is really trying to be portrayed in the story.

So with having to represent her character as cold throughout the episode, and needing to show her as vulnerable and in love later, the phone is the bridge between the two. The phone was the way to show that even though she thought she had all of the power in the relationship,

she had given her heart to Sherlock long before, and his name was literally the key to it.

It's the same with water representing emotion: if emotion is present in the story then there isn't anything else that needs to represent it. People being "mirrors" to other characters focuses the audiences on a particular aspect of the character that cannot be overtly shown without simply coming out and saying "hey, look at this!"

So if the author wants to represent that two childhood friends are growing apart throughout a story as they get older, but wants the characters to believe that they are as close as they ever were, then they can insert a tree house into the story that they played in as children, but falls into disrepair over the years.

Then when they eventually fall out, the reader isn't completely shocked at the fact they went from best friends to indifference: they instinctively understand that they have been growing apart for years and the climax was just the straw that broke the camels back.

I think later drafts might be better to insert such symbols or subtextual metaphors, so that whatever is needed to be represented is fully fleshed out and a suitable choice can be made to represent the missing link within the narrative. Possibly the best time would be after beta readers can give feedback, so that anything that they feel was not very well established can be worked upon with something that is not overtly part of the story.

  • Not having watched Sherlock (yet) I'm not sure if any of the information you revealed in the first few paragraphs would be considered spoilers, but if they are would you mind editing them so that the spoilers are hidden?
    – Mary ML
    Jan 23, 2017 at 7:43

First, I think we need to make a distinction here between what we might call Easter eggs -- little in jokes of the sort of which Stephen Moffat and his cronies are particularly fond. Sherlock and Dr. Who are full of these, and they encourage the fandom to go looking for more, finding many were I am sure none were intended.

This is all quite different from subtext, which is the broader intention of the text. Thus in Oliver Twist, the subtext is a condemnation of the workhouse system. In The Once and Future King (I'm with Lin Carter in regarding this, not LOTR, as the greatest fantasy novel of the 20th century) Merlyn educates the Wart by turning him into various animals where he learns about their various social systems, from the totalitarian thought control of the ant colony to the libertarianism of the wild geese. Each one of these stories has a subtext about the nature of human societies. There is also a progression in them in which the Wart's future as King Arthur, and the trials of his office are foreshadowed. They combine fancy and delight with a growing weight of responsibility and doom. All this is subtext beneath simple animal fables.

The big difference between Easter eggs and subtext is that Easter eggs are smaller than the story while the subtext is larger than the story. An Easter egg can be added or subtracted from a story without changing it fundamentally. But with a subtext, the story exists at all only to support and express the subtext. The subtext is why you write the story in the first place.

The relationship between story and subtext is, I think, one of the most important ones in literature. Nominally, the subtext could be expressed in an essay. It is an argument about politics or philosophy or psychology or theology or metaphysics and can be argued plainly as such. Why do we then cloth our subtext in story? Because by doing so we humanize the argument. At the political level, we feel sympathy for Oliver Twist in a way we do not feel sympathy for a statistic. At a philosophical level, TH White can express the contrast of the beauty and inexpressible kindness of the world with its limitless cruelty and the futility of even the most virtuous and well meaning striving, in far more concrete and moving terms through the career, loves, and doom of Arthur, in a way no mere essay could ever capture.

So, subtext first, then text, then Easter eggs. Or, to put it another way, if a novel were a cupcake, the cake is the subtext, the structure which holds everything up, the icing it the text, the story, which attracts the eye, and the Easter eggs are the sprinkles on top.

Not every story has a subtext, of course. Many are no more than a yarn, and there is nothing wrong with a yarn. Many other works strive to have a subtext but fail to keep it sub. It bursts out in little aggrieved essays or didactic passages which both bore and spoil the story.

The other important thing about subtexts is that they are not hidden. Yes, the author must be careful not to have them break out and become super-textual, but at the same time, they are not trying to conceal their meaning or intent. They are saying what the want to say as clearly as they can (or as clearly as the prevailing censorship regime will let them) while maintaining the clothing of story on which the engagement of human sympathy depends.

The reason we have to explain subtext to students of literature today is not that the authors were hiding their subtext, but that the modern student of literature is not familiar with either the specific conditions or the time and place in which the author wrote, nor with the stories and the allusions which the author used to express their meaning as clearly as they could to their contemporaries.

Easter eggs, on the other hand, are intentionally hidden as part of game the author is playing with the reader, challenging them to prove they are as clever as the author is.

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    You make an excellent point about Easter eggs — I wasn't referencing those in my question, but I'm glad you brought them up. :) Jan 20, 2017 at 15:23
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    @LaurenIpsum, well I don't think there is much real subtext in Sherlock. Metaphor and symbol are not subtext, but a way of telling a story, But to the extent that there is, the same principle applies. The story exists to bring forth the subtext. Therefore the intention to have a subtext comes before the crafting of a story that creates that subtext.
    – user16226
    Jan 20, 2017 at 16:27
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    Subtext is not something one "inserts" into literature. It comes from the reader's reading of a text. It can be argued, as you say in an essay, that it is there or not there etc. but I flinch at the word insertion. So, a writer writes a story and may provide enough richness in any aspect of it to create a reading of subtext. I also think that the cupcake metaphor is slightly specious. I'd say the subtext is something not directly related to the cupcake at all but to some attitude about its creation or existence.
    – Lambie
    Jan 20, 2017 at 18:04
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    @LaurenIpsum No, I do not want to post a question about that. Why would I? I know what it is. I agree with Mark Baker, Sherlock doesn't really contain subtext. I guess I might be approaching this as a linguist. I understand it as explained in this wikipedia post: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subtext It sounds to me as if you younger folk (??) might have some new definition for it. Sounds almost like hypertext or somesuch thing. I just find the word insertion to be wrong, literarily speaking.
    – Lambie
    Jan 20, 2017 at 18:56
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    @Lauren Ipsum I think subtext is created more as a believable reading of a literary text that a reader can argue based on a text. I don't think writers consciously create it. Also, re symbols, in some works like Eco's The Name of the Rose, the rose symbol is used by him to evoke a slew of ideas prevalent in the Middle Ages, including purity, love, etc. But more often, symbols are not that obvious. Objects may symbolize an activity. In the Old Man and Sea, the boat can be life and the fishing, his life's work. So, the entire book almost functions symbolically....
    – Lambie
    Jan 20, 2017 at 20:16

I studied literature at university. We spent a lot of time extracting meaning from texts, and some time on understanding the process of writers. From what I learned there, I can assure you that the overwhelming amount of meaning found in literature (or any other art) is a projection on the part of the person analyzing the text. What meaning there is, usually is not inserted by the author in a conscious process. Much of classic literature wasn't constructed as much as "conceived" and created out of intuition.

Subtext is a non-explicit, if you want, repressed or actual meaning below the surface of the events unfolding in the plot. Merriam-Webster defines subtext as "the implicit or metaphorical meaning (as of a literary text)"; the Oxford English Dictionary defines subtext as "[a]n underlying and often distinct theme in a conversation, piece of writing, etc.". Plot is the Hulk smashing military machines, subtext is the sexual confusion and social fear of teenage boys. Plot is the queen attempting to kill Snow White, subtext is the fear of women growing old and losing their (sexual) power to younger women.

Subtext, as I understand it, is always visceral. Subtext is what is wrong with society at the time a work of art is created. And that is something, that most artists don't fully grasp themselves. But some artists live in a special place in their society, a place where the truth about their environment is lived, and they write (or paint or whatever) out of that experiences and, without understanding the full extent of their own exemplary position, put the truth of their lives into their art.

Those small parts of meaning that are in fact consciously constructed into texts are inserted at all points in the writing process. They can be part of the outlining (where a writer might plan different throughlines, some of which can be throughlines of motifs, character relations, etc. and don't need to be single-character throughlines) or the meanings can be added in as a second layer of text during the revision process.

Adding subtext (or meaning) during the revision process has the advantage that you know what kind of text you have and that the finished text will inspire you and give you ideas how you can "enrich" it. Planning subtext beforehand will restrict your writing even more than just planning the basic plot, and many writers find that they need or want to deviate from their planned plot as the story logic drives them elsewhere. So the more restriction you have, the more you might feel stifled by your planning, but that will depend on the kind of writer you are.

Personally, I don't intentionally create meaning in the sense that I want to convey a message. The meaning that my texts have for me comes from them feeling "right". If any reader finds more meaning in them, then that is because I managed to create a reading experience that is emotionally rich and at the same time open and vague enough to provide enough of a projection surface for their own views, feelings, and experiences.

But then, a tv series like Sherlock Holmes or a Hollywood movie is not a piece of art with a single vision behind it. It is written, revised, cut, and edited by a host of people, and the process is much more rational and conscious than that of a lone author writing a novel. In movies and tv series, which often do not have any depth or meaning at all, the "subtext" is a conscious design effort much like the production of industrial foods, where ingredients are added that are known to be addictive. What fans call "subtext" in Sherlock Holmes is nothing but film makers understanding the psychology of the audience and adding in these little meaningless riddles that the viewers can "uncover". Because, after all, what does it mean that water symbolizes emotions? Nothing. The water symbolizes emotions because we have all read in women's magazines that water symbolizes emotions, and that is why the film makers put the water there: so that readers of women's magazines can find symbols for emotion.

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    Universities love this idea that meaning is discovered not made. It frees the critic from doing any kind of hard work of understanding while allowing them to spin up an infinite number of thesis topics. It also feeds the psychological tendency of the academic, the arrogant idea that they have more insight into what Shakespeare mean that Shakespeare did. It is also manifest bunk. You don't think Dickens' sub-textual critique of the workhouse system in Oliver Twist was deliberate? Of course it was. You don't think it was intentional meaning? Of course it was.
    – user16226
    Jan 20, 2017 at 21:14
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    On the surface of the novel is one boy living in the workhouse. At not point does Dickens say, the workhouse system is evil and should be abolished. But that is his subtext, just as his critique of the tort system is the subtext of his story about one particular court case in Hard Times. Subtext is not something mysterious or psychological. It is simply the things that a writer sets out to say in the form of a story, when their story is anything more than a simple yarn. Writing is an intentional activity intended to clearly convey particular ideas. A cigar is sometimes just a cigar.
    – user16226
    Jan 20, 2017 at 21:41
  • Sorry, but I have no idea what you mean by that statement.
    – user16226
    Jan 20, 2017 at 21:55
  • Or you can't see a plain subtext when it is staring you in the face and must invent one that even you cannot seem to articulate. This smacks more of Gnosticism than literary criticism.
    – user16226
    Jan 20, 2017 at 22:06
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    I see you are quoting people who made it up. My apologies. Still don't know what those terms mean though. But plain subtext is not a contradiction. Good authors do not try to hide their meaning. They strive to make it as plain as possible. The psychoanalyzing critic thinks they can discover meaning the writer did not intend. I call BS. But on a site about writing it is beside the point. Here we are concerned to help the writer achieve the meaning they deliberately mean to achieve, and that includes their intentional subtexts. Any other discussion of subtext is off topic here.
    – user16226
    Jan 20, 2017 at 23:10

As someone who is a big fan of subtext, I find it can be a trap for me, in that I get too obsessed with it, to the point where it hurts the surface text. And I agree with what that a lot of the subtext in good writing enters organically, without the writer's conscious effort.

But with that said, adding a judicious amount of subtext can be a great way to expand the depth of a piece of writing. Here are a couple ways I've seen it used effectively:

  1. To explore or reveal parts of a character's mental state, particularly when the character is not conscious of those things. For instance, subtext in dialog and/or description can be used to foreshadow a love affair, or build sexual tension. This is especially helpful when you don't want to be too "on the nose" as Goldman said. In real life, people are often unaware of these things, or circumspect about referring to them, so it's realistic for your characters to be as well. I saw a great example of this recently in the HBO show "Insecure." Several of the show's main characters went to see a hip-hop gospel play called "The Last Suppa." The show-within-a-show was played for laughs, and very entertaining, but the theme of Judas betraying Christ doubled as a callback to the main character's guilt about having cheated on her boyfriend. The subtext was all in her reactions to the material.

  2. Subtext can also ground your story in a larger context. For instance, Cabaret is the story of a young man living in a foreign country, falling in love with an actress, and exploring his sexuality. But the context is that the foreign country is Germany just prior to WWII. The main story stands on its own, but the subtext adds depth and significance.


I would like to try an answer that overlooks the contentious term 'subtext'. Regardless of its meaning (or meanings) in literary theory, the truth is most amateur writers (in the sense of writers who write for the love of it and discover the techniques as they go in order to perfect their craft) misunderstand a lot of literary terms. I studied literature and remember quite a few terms which were difficult to grasp correctly even with the teachers explaining them and correcting faulty interpretations.

So when writing a story, at what point do you plan for these items [mirrors, symbols, and subtext]?

Do you have a separate thread in your mindmap or outline alongside the main thread in the outline form?

Write the whole thing and work in the subtext in the third draft? Is there a particular point in the process when it's easier?

IMHO, it depends. If you're writing literature (with the elitistic capital L), it should be mostly already part of the plot, with the characters representing something bigger than them and every word and action being carefully thought out to create the right impression. I'll assume that is not what you're doing.

So you have a story with the plot, subplots and characters fleshed out and ready to navigate the action. But you want to make all this deeper; you want to shine a subtle light on a less visible personality trait (because the villain is tragically in love and refuses to acknowledge it while the hero is hiding from the reader and the narrator how dark his heart truly is).

You have two ways to go about it:

  1. if you're a planner, go back to the plot and decide where you can drop little hints and what is the nature of those hints.

Do you want the plot to represent politics, moral values, human growth? If so, make sure the plot conveys these ideas without contradiction (unless that is the point of your tale) and perhaps not too obviously. If you want your hero to be the spiritual saviour of a community, don't have him die on a cross in order to do so. Subtlety is the key word here.

Do you want to jab a criticism somewhere along the story but not have the story be all about that criticism? Work it into a subplot.

Do you want to use universal symbols (e.g. the red rose as symbol of love) or do you want to create your own symbols, which will stand as such only for this text (e.g. the oak leaf as a symbol of love because it reminds the character of when he met/lost/whatever the love of his life)? If the latter, decide how that symbol came into existence within the tale.

Do you want to use a wealth of these items and create a highly symbolic, metaphorical tale? Be careful. Personally, I find that works better in extremely well crafted Literary works. If that is not what you want, then, again, plan how many of those items will be used per chapter on average and balance their levels of subtlety. Be particularly careful to not use these items as themselves but weave them into the plot and actions in a way that they will almost be invisible.

  1. If you are not a planner, play it by ear. That's mostly my case. I have a generally vague plan and then discover these things as I go. If, say, I notice that my subplot could be used to criticise whatever, then I may stop to revise it and make sure it fits with the criticism I'm aiming for.

May I give an example of a historical novel (a telling of real people and events which have a lot of unknown gaps in the history books) I'm working on with examples for 'non-planners'?

The scene: There is one high-noble woman that is dealing with the fact her marriage has been annuled and she's now a hostage locked in her chamber. She is thinking of her father, condemned as a traitor, and wondering what fate will the daughter of a traitor have.

The thought process: Traitor! Who is the biggest traitor of all? Let's have her sit by a tapestry which is a tryptic with the crucification in the middle and Judas hanged on one lateral. Ah! At the time, the crucification scene showed the Virgin Mary fainting by the cross. So let's have the character sit at the feet of Christ (because she is the pawn whose father will sacrifice quite a few times to reach his goals) and let's have her think of the scene while praying for Christ's and his mother's intersection. In later chapters we can now learn the character's mother (who had a long attested history of depression associated to health problems) did die shortly after this blow to her daughter.

The plot points:
1. the noblewoman goes out with a hunting party to hunt water fowls to advance a certain plot point.
2. the nobleowoman will later have her husband be involved with a court lady nicknamed 'egret neck' (it sounds much nicer in the original language)
3. the noblewoman's maid will try to avenge her cheated lady

The thought process: They're out hunting egrets already! Let's have a subplot where the maid kills an egret to avenge a slight towards her lady (it killed the lady's hawk; egret's were known to do that). This will foreshadow the 'egret neck' lady (who, spoiler ahead, does end up being killed) and show the reader how this maid is so loyal to her lady that she will avenge her even when petty slights are involved.

Attention: This approach is messy and can require going back and forth to introduce, change or cross out items and scenes.


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