For each line of dialog, I have three pieces of text: the dialog itself, and two things I call Subtext1 and Subtext2 for now.

Dialog: Self-explanatory, the only thing actually "visible" to the reader
Subtext1: Shows what I want the reader to think or what I expect them to think
Subtext2: Shows what the scene really is about, with info the reader isn't supposed to know yet.

Dialog: (Pirate) Where is my other boot?!
Subtext1: He seems awfully concerned for a useless boot. What, does he plan to put it on his peg-leg?
Subtext2: He fears someone might have found his super secret treasure map in the small pouch on the side of the boot.

So my question is, is this already a "thing"? Like, is there a technique of sorts that works like this already? What names would be more fitting for Subtext1 and Subtext2?

  • It's a very interesting question! I just don't understand what do you actually need: just the "name" of this technique? Or something more?
    – FraEnrico
    Nov 7, 2017 at 21:19
  • 2
    @FraEnrico I actually just wanted to know the name of this if it already exists, as well as maybe get some suggestions on what words fit best for these types of "subtexts". I've been using this for a few weeks now and it really helped me, so I figured somebody else must have already thought of this before me and given it a proper name. My plan was to look it up (if this already existed) and maybe find some additional info that would help me sort out my writing.
    – user23083
    Nov 8, 2017 at 14:25
  • 1
    Your subtext #2 reminds me of the 'secret' component that a compelling character is 'supposed to have' according to writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/… .
    – SFWriter
    Nov 8, 2017 at 14:38

3 Answers 3


I'm not aware of a pre-existing name for your technique, but I think your breakdown can be helpful. I'm going to assume that the subtexts are for your own benefit and never actually make it onto the final page.

I assume this because you say your technique is a way...

...to better structure my thoughts, especially in regards to what I want to convey in my dialog.

Thus, I'd suggest three words/phrases:

  • dialogue
  • desired effect
  • reality

Dialogue is the literal words that are spoken.

Desired effect is what you hope the reader would be thinking, feeling, or saying to themselves as a result of reading your dialogue.

Reality is the true meaning of the statement (true to your story, that is), which may or may not align with the desired effect. I'd imagine that in this case, you want them to find out about the map later for a greater dramatic effect or twist.

  • 1
    You are right, these "subtexts" are just for me, hence why I said the dialog is the only "visible" part for the reader: everything else is just for my own info. I'm actually working on a small program for myself to sort these types of "subtexts", so I just wanted to give them appropriate one-word names. Gotta find a better word for the first subtext instead of "Desired effect", but thanks for pushing me in the right direction!
    – user23083
    Nov 8, 2017 at 14:32
  • How about "response," "reaction," or "feedback"? Nov 8, 2017 at 15:15
  • I don't know... those are all missing something to imply that those are desired or possible "reactions" or "responses" I want from the reader. Meh... maybe there's a single word for that, but that's a job for the English Language & Usage Stackexchange. Doesn't matter that much anyway, but thanks anyway!
    – user23083
    Nov 8, 2017 at 15:42

Your subtext2 is what is generally called foreshadowing. That is, it hints at something important that is yet to be revealed: the clouds on the horizon that hint at rain. It is not really a form of subtext. Subtext is a very loose term (and, frankly, I think we would be better off without it) but it generally seems to refer to text that says one thing and means another. There is no secondary meaning in your pirate wanting his boot. He wants it for one and only one reason. We just don't know what it is yet. This introduces mystery, and perhaps tension, but not a secondary meaning.

Your subtext1 is not necessarily a subtext either. It is simply the impression you wish the passage to convey; your intent. Part of your intent may be to suggest one meaning on the surface and another meaning beneath that surface. That deeper meaning would be a subtext, but there is no deeper meaning in your priate example, merely a motivation, on the surface level of the main story, that has not been revealed.

The belief in subtexts has become pervasive and insidious in our literary culture. Authors like Tolkien and Flannery O'Connor have railed against it. I think the obsession with subtext undervalues story as story, suggesting that a story is of little value in itself and must exist in order to covertly convey some declarative point.

I think this is bosh. A story is an experiences. We do learn from experience, of course. But what we learn from experience is more profoundly learned than anything we learn from reading declarative propositions. But experience has a value beyond what it teaches. What we value in life comes from our experiences. A story, then, is a higher thing than any philosophical proposition. It is an experience and it needs be no more than an experience, even if that leaves literary critics with much less to talk about.

Leave subtext to the imagination of the critics, therefore, and focus on making the story you are writing the most vivid and moving experience it can be.

  • subtext 1 reminds me of Terry Pratchetts technique in the Tiffany Aching books of First, Second and Third thoughts (and sometimes fourth, fifth and sixth). And I agree in part with your observations. There's too much politics in entertainment - sometimes a story is just a story and meant to entertain - not push the latest agenda
    – user18397
    Nov 8, 2017 at 2:33
  • Sorry for the late answer. No offense, but I think you got too hung up on the word "subtext". :P I know it wasn't the right word to use in my example (should've mentioned this... sorry), it was just a placeholder name, since I had no idea what to call them otherwise. And I don't see anything wrong with using "subtexts" like that to organize your thoughts, it's not like your readers will ever see those texts.
    – user23083
    Nov 13, 2017 at 20:56

I've often recommended a close variation of this technique for people who have trouble with dialogue. But I don't believe it has a formal name. Since you are using it solely for yourself, you should use the labels that are most meaningful to you. My suggestions would be "plaintext", "intent", and "subtext" but those are merely suggestions.

You might also consider occasionally using a fourth level: "subconscious" (or something expressing that meaning).

  • I actually thought about using a fourth level for something else actually, namely to tell myself why I arranged a certain scene the way it is. For example to increase a comedic effect, or leaving something out on purpose to make something more understandable for the reader.
    – user23083
    Nov 8, 2017 at 15:26
  • @noClue Supertext? Oct 19, 2018 at 17:40

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