In this question about creating subtext, Where in the writing process do you work in subtext?, the question of what the word subtext means was raised. This question is to address this issue.

Of course, as all good writers know, there are not enough words to go round for all the things we want to say, and thus the same word can get used for several different things, so the purpose of this question is not to create one definition to banish all other meanings, but to create the opportunity to clearly delineate the various possible meanings so that we can have a discussion about various kinds of subtext without confusion.


2 Answers 2


The term "subtext" seems to be used for a least four things each of which is distinct, and only two of which I will suggest are on topic for this site.

  1. It is used as a catchall for literary devices such as symbolism, metaphor, etc. This, I would suggest, is just a mistake. Literary devices are a way of telling a story, of creating an image in the reader's mind that relates to the primary story. They are not in themselves subtext, even though they may contribute to the development and expression of a subtext where one exists.

  2. A subtext is a broader meaning designed and intended by the author are part of the design of the work. Thus Oliver Twist is a story about a particular boy, but is also a condemnation of the English workhouse system of the time. This criticism is never explicit -- it is sub-textual. Deliberate subtext is on topic here because it is concerned with the writer's attempt to communicate.

  3. "Subtext" is used by critics to describe meanings that they believe are created by the writer unintentionally, but which show through in the work, presumably because of some unresolved psychological issue. While I personally consider such readings bogus and the presumption that the critic knows more about what the author means that the author does unsupportable arrogant, this type of subtext is off topic here anyway as it is a question about an existing literary work. Literary works may be cited as examples to help the author deliberately create meaning, but discussion for other purposes belongs elsewhere.

  4. "Subtext" is used by another set of critics to describe the meanings that the reader reads into the text that were not intended by the author. This seems an inappropriate use of the word to me, since the meaning is not under the text but behind the readers eye, but again questions relating to his type of subtext should be off topic here, since they don't relate to the author's intention. (Conceivably examples of misreadings of a text could be on topic here as a way to warn writers of the ways in which they may fail to get their meaning across.)

For purposes of this site, I suggest, the word "subtext" should primarily be taken to refer to the writers deliberate intention and attempt to create a broader meaning behind the individual incidents of a story, since the discussion of other meanings of the term would be off-topic here.

  • I concur that #2 is the definition we want, and the one which is on-topic for discussion here. Commented Jan 21, 2017 at 1:25
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    @DanielCann - On Stack Exchange, it is completely within scope to answer your own question. Mark is just getting the information onto the site. Commented Jan 21, 2017 at 11:41
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    -1 You redefine established theoretical terms to fit your own ignorance.
    – user5645
    Commented Jan 21, 2017 at 13:12
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    @what, The same words get used to mean different things in different domains of discourse. The discussion of writing as a art is a different domain from the discussion of literature as a cultural or psychological artifact. Even different schools of literary criticism create different domains of discourse in which words have subtly different connotations. Writers, in particular, need to be sensitive to this basic fact of how language works. This is why it is important to define your terms contextually, which is exactly what this answer attempts to do.
    – user16226
    Commented Jan 22, 2017 at 14:10
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    @what - If this is wrong, please write your own answer. Commented Jan 22, 2017 at 17:19

I agree, subtext is something the author does throughout the work, in various ways. It is not necessarily a psychological leaning of their own, it can be an explicitly formulated principle. Nearly all books carry the subtext "Evil loses, good wins;" but that tends more to the 'psychological tendency' side of things, nearly all of us want good to triumph over evil.

But authors can go beyond that, to more closely define "good" and "evil" by the context of who gets punished and who does not. In many heroic stories, the subtext is clearly that violence per se is not a bad thing, because violence (even murder) can be done in the pursuit of defeating evil and the heroes will live happily ever after.

Likewise, a subtext of "gender equality works" can be presented, the author never has to say it, but can intentionally show it through the story. Or to be more explicit, "females can do everything males can do in battle (including triumph or die)".

Subtext can even cross multiple works: Many blacks have complained about the very biased frequency in Hollywood with which black characters are the first to die (a statistically valid observation rising well beyond plausible random chance, until recently), prompting a charge of a subtext for Hollywood writers and producers that blacks are more expendable than whites.

Women have complained about a similar dynamic in portraying females as having far fewer lines than males and seldom portrayed as anything like equals, more generally the object of pursuit or fantasy, or subordinate 'servants' to men.

Within a single work, subtext can serve as an excellent way to get across philosophical points the author wishes to express, without getting preachy and having some character make a long speech (that usually interrupts the story for the worse). Namely, the actions in violation of the subtext philosophy get punished, the action in keeping with it get rewarded, and the author engineers the story to show both types of outcome, repeatedly.

To answer "where to put it," the answer is nowhere, and everywhere. Subtext is not written [The 'nowhere' part of that prescription], it is the consequence of actions and drives the events and outcomes throughout the story [The 'everywhere' part of that prescription].

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